Forty years ago today President Richard M. Nixon told the nation that he had decided to resign from office, effective at noon, Aug. 9, 1974. The long-building scandal of Watergate had finally cost Nixon the White House, the political prize he had sought all his adult life.
He had little choice. It was either quit or be forcibly ousted from the Oval Office. The previous evening, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and two other top congressional Republicans had told him he would be impeached by the House and convicted in the Senate if he fought on. His support among the public had finally collapsed. Fifty-seven percent of US voters thought he should be removed from the presidency, according to Gallup figures.
His approval rating was an abysmal 24 percent.
Today’s voters, inured by years of partisan strife, a 2000 presidential election decided in the courts, and the impeachment of President Clinton, might find it hard to imagine the turmoil then roiling the US electorate. Vietnam, and then Watergate, had split the nation more deeply than anything since the civil war. Nixon’s televised farewell address to the nation began at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time, and when he uttered the fateful line “I shall resign the presidency at noon tomorrow,” the roar from protesters gathered in Lafayette Square was so loud that reporters watching the feed of the speech in the White House basement could not hear the next line.
“The hair on my arms stood straight up,” writes National Journal’s Tom DeFrank, who was then a young White House reporter for Newsweek.
Nixon’s resignation speech was sober and largely unemotional. He said, in essence, that he had lost the congressional support necessary to carry on the work of his administration, and that to spare the country further drift and turmoil, he would go. This underplayed the facts of the scandal, but many commentators found the address helpful, given the circumstances.
“The instant after-analysis by TV commentators was, for once, not unfavorable. Dignity was emphasized,” wrote journalist Fred Emery in his history “Watergate."
But the television address was not Nixon’s real farewell. It was not his personal goodbye, in any case. That came the next day, Aug. 9. Nixon spoke before several hundred staffers, supporters, and friends in the East Room of the White House before boarding the helicopter that was to whisk him to political exile.
Nixon had prepared these remarks that morning, drawing on a number of sources, including the personal papers of one of his tough political heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. Unpolished by staff, the speech was rambling, raw, and emotional – perhaps too emotional.
It was a performance “so wrenching to watch that even some arch-enemies admitted a pang of sympathy for a humiliated fellow human struggling to keep from unraveling,” writes Mr. DeFrank.
Nixon saluted his parents – his father was a “great man," the soon-to-be-ex-president said, and his mother was “a saint." He said he had made mistakes, but never for personal gain. He talked about the White House itself – a house with a “great heart,” though not the biggest or finest residence in the world for a head of state.
His words wandered thereafter. Near the end he rallied, focused, and said this: “Always give your best. Never get discouraged, never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
He had not followed this advice, of course. He was petty enough to have maintained an enemies list and talk disparagingly of ethnic minorities to his staff. His hate of liberals and elites who he felt loathed him led to his establishment of an internal team of saboteurs and break-in artists, the “plumbers," whose overreach in the case of Watergate finally brought him down.
But perhaps his experience proved those words true. And perhaps they have more relevance than ever today in a loud and disputatious political age.
“This admonition not to hate echoes through the decades, followed too infrequently by the practitioners of politics in this city and around the world, reminding us constantly of the steep cost exacted by the incivility and violence unleashed by hate,” writes Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.