I remember the hot August evening clearly. I was sitting outside drinking a beer with my daddy, listening to a radio in the dark.
We were at the farm where he grew up, in Terrell County, Georgia. He and my momma had not yet finished the house where they would live for four decades.
I don’t remember why we were there on a Thursday night, but I know why we were tuned in to the radio. We didn’t have a TV at the farm, and I doubt that an over-the-air antenna would have captured a local station (60 miles from one, 30 or so from the other) as crisply as the radio which could belt out music from Chicago, late at night.
We were tuned in because it was damn important. I had started following the Watergate hearings in May 1973, as a senior in high school. The President’s culpability was dinner table conversation.
At 9:01 pm, Eastern, 08 August 1974, President Richard M. Nixon began his last television address. He was the first, and at this time only, American president to resign.
We were not the only family tuned in, one way or another. The estimated TV audience, 90-110 million; US population in 1974, 214 million.
At least 2,700 radio stations carried the speech. The three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) suspended prime‐time programming and instead devoted Thursday evening “to news analysis, interviews and discussion” of the 16‐minute speech and the events that had led up to this moment.
I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter, I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require…
To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office…
By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.
Analysis from the Washington Post, which sponsored the reporting that eventually led to impeachment proceedings, published the following day:
[Nixon] made no confession of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” with which the House Judiciary Committee charged him in its bill of impeachment.
Specifically, he did not refer to Judiciary Committee charges that in the cover-up of Watergate crimes he misused government agencies such as the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.
After the President’s address, Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski issued a statement declaring that “there has been no agreement or understanding of any sort between the President or his representatives and the special prosecutor relating in any way to the President’s resignation.”
At noon on Friday, Vice President Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) took the oath of office as the new President.
Ford was not Nixon’s running mate when he was re-elected in 1972. That was Spiro Agnew, who had resigned on 10 October 1973, the same day he pleaded no contest to a felony charge of federal tax evasion.
After Agnew resigned, Nixon followed the Constitutional process developed after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Ford, then House Minority Leader, was the first person nominated as Vice President under the 25th Amendment (1967).
On 12 October 1973, Nixon nominated Ford, who was then House Minority Leader, to be Vice President. The Senate voted to confirm (92-3) on 27 November 1973. The House confirmed (387-35) on 06 December 1973. (Notice the bi-partisanship? The Democrats controlled both chambers.)
Less than a year later, on 09 August 1974, Ford became the only person “to become President without winning a general election for President or Vice President.”
In early September 1974, three-in-five Americans believed that Nixon should “be tried for possible criminal charges arising from Watergate.” Instead, Ford pardoned Nixon on 08 September 1974. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in November 1976.
Some analysts argue that pardon led to Trump’s behavior:
Ford’s pardon established a precedent: The worst fate an American president can face is removal from office. While I was among those who believed for nearly 50 years that it was a sufficient punishment for Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors, I failed to conceive of a president who would be undeterred by shame, truth or even democracy.
Trump has exploited that precedent. By concluding that the only thing that could happen to him would be to lose the White House and return to his jet-setting lifestyle atop his self-branded business empire, he was emboldened to exceed all the norms established by his predecessors.
- All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
- All the President’s Men, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford
- Blind Ambition: The White House Years, John Dean
- Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (Miller Center Studies on the Presidency)
- The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, John Dean
- The Post, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks