On Aug. 8, 1974, after a summer of political paralysis and slowly-released evidence of a brewing scandal, Nixon resigned as president as he was hounded by a potential impeachment process. He handed the reins of power to appointed Vice President Gerald Ford and left for California.
The 40th anniversary of the only U.S. president to resign from office compels us to remember how the Watergate scandal ultimately led to Nixon's resignation. It's a reminder of how "a third-rate burglary," in Nixon's own words, became a protracted and psychologically painful experience for the entire country. Yet his resignation also stands as a defining moment in U.S. history, in that it fundamentally changed both the nature of the presidency itself and the way in which news media cover political controversies.
The Watergate scandal created a cottage industry of analysis in America: of the trail left by a president who claimed he had no knowledge of a 1972 break-in at the Washington Democratic Party headquarters; of Nixon's psyche; of citizens' relationships with their leaders; and of political privilege in a democracy.
With the possible exception of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and subsequent funeral in 1963, it was Watergate that helped shape the television news template for covering political scandals to which we are now accustomed, featuring ad hoc experts at a table, batting around issues as information arrives.
When the Nixon administration finally fell, it fell quickly. On Aug. 5, 1974, an incriminating audiotape from June 1972 was released, indicating Nixon was aware of the break-in. The transcript of the "smoking gun tapes" proved Nixon and his then-chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, had attempted to involve the CIA in deceptively demonstrating national security was an issue.
As Helen Thomas reported in 1974, "Nixon was under extreme pressure from his own party members and friends in Congress to quit following the disclosure Monday that contrary to his past statements, he tried to limit an FBI investigation of Watergate and was told of possible high-level involvement in the scandals as early as June 23, 1972."
The lies on the tape shook Nixon's White House loyalists. Chief of Staff Al Haig and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later acknowledged this was the moment of realization. Defense of the administration was no longer the issue; it was time to close up and depart.
"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," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in the book The Final Days.
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), after assuring Haig the level of discourse would be restrained and not a perceived legislative seizure of executive authority, visited the White House the following day to tell Nixon an impeachment vote could no longer be stalled. Goldwater himself -- an elder lion of the Republican Party -- would vote to impeach, he said, adding Nixon had no more than 18 of 100 senators supporting him.
Nixon announced his resignation on national television Aug. 8, effective the following day, in an address that downplayed his personal responsibility but emphasized the good of the country. The presentation was preceded by what has since been described as a night of paranoia in the White House. Memoirs by Kissinger and others mention prayer, heavy drinking, Nixon's muttering to portraits on the White House walls -- elements anecdotal and perhaps apocryphal, indicating the level of disarray at the top of American government, and how government essentially stood still for a summer.
Commemorating the events of 1974, the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., has begun releasing portions of reminiscences of the last days in office, recorded in 1983 by Nixon and former aide Frank Gannon and not heard in 30 years. They provide friendly banter between two old friends, speaking of mistakes made and something of presidential honor, and history's judgment, on Nixon's mind. For example, after Nixon decided to leave the presidency, his wife attempted to persuade him to stay, until he played her the "smoking gun" tape.
Nixon mostly stayed out of the public arena until his 1994 death -- notwithstanding a series of exploratory and sometimes confrontational television programs with interviewer David Frost, as well as Nixon's involvement in settling a strike of baseball umpires. His fall from power had the effect, in part, of negating his administration's triumphs: closing the war in Vietnam, lowering the voting age, and opening relations with China. Those became achievements the Republican Party was reluctant to mention for fear of bringing up images in voters' minds of the scowling, defensive, combative Nixon.
A 1974 UPI "Year in Review" quotes Rep. William Hungate (D-Mo.) on Nixon, July 24, 1974, the day the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that all presidential audiotapes must be turned over to congressional investigators:
"He shows a lack of concern for morality, a lack of concern for high principles, a lack of commitment to high ideals of public office that makes the transcripts a sickening exposure. Richard Nixon is humorous to the point of being inhumane. He is devious; he is vacillating; he is profane; he is willing to be led; he displays dismay and gaps in knowledge. He is suspicious of his staff, his loyalties minimal. His greatest concern is to create a record that will save himself and his Administration."
Forty years after Nixon's resignation, that largely remains his image.
Every U.S. president since Nixon has been threatened, however obliquely, with the possibility of impeachment. President Bill Clinton survived his impeachment in 1998 on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Yet it is no coincidence that presidential terms since Nixon have experienced relative stability, whereas few 20th-century presidents served exclusively full terms prior to Jimmy Carter.
Meanwhile, special care has been taken since 1974 to observe the separation of powers in American government. While Congress and the Supreme Court had roles in Nixon's downfall, neither was accused of usurping power from the executive branch during the Watergate scandal -- a political premise whose respect has increased since.
In the 1974 elections that followed Nixon's resignation, Democrats gained three Senate and 49 House seats. And Ford's 1976 presidential defeat by Jimmy Carter can be attributed, at least in part, to widespread public perceptions that Ford's blanket pardon of Nixon for any undisclosed crimes -- a month after the resignation -- was overly generous. That pardon did, however, spare America the potential ordeal of a Nixon trial.
Laws regarding financial disclosures by some government officials were strengthened in the wake of Nixon's resignation. And candidates' release of information such as income tax returns, while not required by law, are now a part of the election equation.
Politicians also no longer tend to record their office conversations, even if smartphones continue to embroil them in scandal and spark a media uproar.