Second to last post in our series on the Watergate Crisis; here we follow the crisis to its end, in President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. The Smoking Gun tape released three days earlier evaporated any support Nixon had left in Congress, and the handful of its members who had voted against impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee said they would now vote for it when the full House voted. The night of August 7, two Senators and a Congressman met with Nixon and told him impeachment in the House and Senate was a certainty. Faced with this, Nixon decided to resign before he could be impeached.
It was a move true to his character. In a way, resigning before he could be impeached was just another form of being above the law—no one would impeach Richard Nixon. He would not submit to Congress in that way. He would get out before the law could be exercised on him, before democratic procedure could be completed.
Nixon gave two resignation speeches that were exemplars of his twisted logic. The first was to the nation, on August 8, 1974, where he said, in part,
In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….
—That first sentence is breathtakingly deceitful. If Americans had learned anything by August 8, 1974, it was that Nixon was always out to do what was best for Nixon. He goes on to describe Watergate as a cross he has been forced to bear rather than a crime committed in his name that he himself covered up. Nixon then blames Congress for failing to support him, and forcing him to abrogate the “constitutional process” (by which he means serving his full elected term). To hear Nixon lament a breach of the Constitution at this point is, to put it succinctly, pretty rich.
I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, 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.
—Again, Congress is the villain here. There is also a veiled threat (something Nixon was good at): there are “very difficult decisions and duties” the president must handle, but now, because of Congress, Nixon has to leave office, and it’s likely that the man to take his place will not be able to do as good a job handling these difficulties as Nixon.
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. 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.
—Again, no one puts the nation ahead of personal interests like Nixon. Again, Congress is a villain. And again, the nation is in particular peril “with problems we face at home and abroad” and will likely suffer in Nixon’s absence, so in a way we, the American people, are also villains for failing to support Nixon, and we will get our just desserts.
The second speech was given the next day to the White House staff, privately. It was mostly impromptu, and rambling, and in places very weird. Nixon talked about his parents and how saintly his mother was, and he talked about Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to recover from the death of his first wife. We’ll focus on the parts where he came closest to addressing why he was leaving office:
…I am proud of this Cabinet. I am proud of all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I am proud of our sub-Cabinet. I am proud of our White House Staff. As I pointed out last night, sure, we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I have never ducked it. But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five and a half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you.
—In defending his staff, Nixon really places blame on them for the first time. No one had thought the Watergate cover-up extended beyond Nixon and his top half-dozen aides. By saying he is proud of them and that “we” have done “some things wrong”, and that as “top man” he has taken responsibility for those wrongful acts, Nixon really seems to be saying he took the fall for his entirely criminal staff. Then he seems to note that none of them ever made any money from their crimes.
Mistakes, yes. But for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a wealthy man — at the present time, I have got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I would like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you have made to serve in government. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as [Theodore Roosevelt] said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.
—Again, it’s the staff who committed the crimes—“you” did what “you” believed in, “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.” And then again the odd swerve into talking about money. And then, after accusing his staff of crimes and of making him take the fall, he comforts them by saying they mustn’t worry about him, that the light has not left their lives forever just because he is leaving office. They will survive their grief at losing him, somehow.
It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
…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.
—Nixon’s suffering has made him great; it has purified him to the point where he can end with a parable. To hear Nixon, whom the tapes revealed to be one of the most petty men in public office, constantly pursuing old grudges and trying to harm people for small offenses, loftily telling people not to be petty is remarkable. To hear the man who hated just about everyone he ever met say you should never hate because then “you destroy yourself” is almost funny.
He was right, though; his hatred and pettiness did destroy him, and he lost while most of the people he tried to bring down won. Next time, we’ll go over the legacy of Watergate.
Next time: Why don’t we remember Watergate?