Forty years ago today President Richard M. Nixon faced the fact that he had lost virtually all his remaining political support in the halls of American power.
It was Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1974. President Nixon had not yet resigned. By most accounts he had not yet decided on a final course of action. But staff and associates believed he was on the verge of resignation. It was a subject on which Nixon had been mulling obliquely, in his characteristic manner, for days.
The problem was the “smoking gun” White House tape of June 23, 1972. Nixon had struggled to maintain legal control of the tapes of his presidential conversations as the tide of the Watergate scandal rose, but lost.
So on Aug. 5, 1974, the White House released this previously unknown bit of evidence. Recorded only a few days after the Watergate break-in, it proved that Nixon and then-Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman had tried to get the CIA to falsely claim national security was involved in the Watergate manner, in an effort to get the FBI to end its nascent investigation.
Nixon had steadfastly insisted he had nothing to do with any cover-up. The new tape showed this to be a lie, jolting even the most committed loyalists on his staff. Chief of Staff Al Haig and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among others, said later that they knew Nixon now had to go. The problem was the manner of his going.
“Haig wanted to smooth the way – for the country, for the President and for himself. He could see, hear and feel the erosion. Everything was crumbling at once,” wrote the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book “The Final Days.”
Republicans in the Senate had nominated an elder statesman to deliver to Nixon the news that he could no longer avoid impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona had himself been a losing presidential candidate. He was a curmudgeon, sometimes excitable. But he had great stature in the party and would tell Nixon what he thought – that he himself would now vote for conviction. The White House agreed to a meeting late Wednesday afternoon.
Chief of Staff Haig was worried about the appearance of congressional pressure on the president. He thought a march of GOP lawmakers urging Nixon to resign for their own purposes could change the nature of the US government to one in which the chief executive served at legislative whim. His concern was perhaps overblown given the unusual circumstances, but Haig believed things firmly, and he met beforehand with Goldwater to ensure the meeting’s rhetoric would remain restrained.
Goldwater, along with House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott, entered the Oval Office around 5 p.m. The Arizona senator sat directly in front of Nixon’s desk, the others to the side. Goldwater told Nixon he had perhaps 16 to 18 Senate supporters left – too few to avoid ouster. Congressman Rhodes said House support was just as soft.
“I’ve got a very difficult decision to make,” said Nixon, in Woodward and Bernstein’s account.
No one can really know the moment Nixon decided to quit. But in the annals of Watergate this was certainly a moment of truth.
Nixon later held that at this point he recognized the inevitability of resignation but was determined to not appear to have been pushed out by anyone – staff, lawmakers, or the media.
“This was almost true. The decision was Nixon’s,” wrote journalist Fred Emery in his book “Watergate,” a full history of the scandal. “What clinched it, though, was the certainty that not only had he ‘lost’ the congressional support of his own party and his natural allies among conservative Democrats, also that they would actually convict him at trial and remove him from office.”
Nixon stayed a while in the Oval Office after his congressional visitors had left. Eventually he went to the White House solarium, where his family was gathered. They were the final obstacle to resignation, with his daughters Julie and Tricia urging him to fight regardless. But Nixon’s loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, informed them that the president had decided to quit. There were to be no further family appeals. Nixon would address the nation the next day, Aug. 8.
“A day for tears,” Tricia Nixon Cox wrote in her diary.