Nixon's resignation changed American politics forever
August 9, 1999
Web posted at: 1:14 a.m. EDT (0514 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, August 9) -- The images burn in the minds of people who lived through the times: The helicopter on the south lawn of the White House. The final victory salute. And finally, the departure of Richard M. Nixon, the only president in American history to resign.
On August 9, 1974 -- 25 years ago Monday -- the Nixon presidency ended in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. There would be many more developments, including indictments and convictions of former administration officials and a presidential pardon for Nixon, but the departure was the image that, for many, defines the Nixon presidency.
"This was the nightmarish end of a long dream," Nixon later recalled. And in the 25 years that have passed, which have featured political scandals aplenty, Nixon's death and even a presidential impeachment, the image of Nixon's departure perseveres.
"Until he left office, that man was in control. He was distraught. He was in a personal crisis of unprecedented magnitude -- all he ever wanted was to be president," said Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff. "But of all the presidents I have known, he was the most thoughtful."
Nixon's departure, and the swearing-in of Gerald Ford as the new president, ended a rapid series of events in which Nixon's presidency fell apart. Although the Watergate scandal had gone on for more than two years, Nixon's final days were remarkable for the speed at which his presidency crumbled.
The breaking point was the so-called "smoking gun," a transcript of a secret tape made in the Oval Office. Released August 5, 1974, it showed that six days after the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in, Nixon had tried to use the Central Intelligence Agency to block the Federal Bureau of Investigation's work in investigating the burglary.
That connected Nixon directly to the burglary -- the fact he long had denied.
Already, the House Judiciary Committee had voted three articles of impeachment against Nixon. The transcript, Nixon aides strongly believed, would end any doubt of the eventual outcome.
And so, Nixon prepared a resignation speech. He gave it just three days later -- August 8, 1974.
In it, Nixon said he regretted "deeply any injuries that may have been done," while not admitting to any criminal wrongdoing, and said he would resign the next day.
"It would have been a good resignation speech for a president leaving office because of illness, or for one who had lost congressional support
because of differences over policies," said Leon Jaworski, the late Watergate special prosecutor. "It was not the speech of a president who had violated his constitutional oath and duty by obstructing justice, by abusing the power of his office, by transforming the Oval Office into a mean den where perjury and low scheming became a way of life."
The next morning, Nixon signed the resignation documents, made a final speech to his staff and stepped onto the Marine One helicopter for the last time, to begin a trip to California as an ex-president.
"I felt sorry for him, but I was also relieved to see him go," said John Sirica, the judge who eventually presided over several criminal trials involving Watergate defendants.
And Nixon began a political rehabilitation process that included a self-imposed exile of sorts at San Clemente, California, followed by a carefully timed series of interviews and books.
Eventually, he became an occasional Washington figure again, even visiting the White House. President Bill Clinton even met with Nixon in the Oval Office during Clinton's first term. By the time of his April 22, 1994 death, Nixon had assumed the role of political sage in the eyes of some.
"After the Nixons got on the helicopter, I went to Bill Timmons' (Nixon's congressional lobbyist) office," said Robert Hartmann, chief of staff to Ford during Ford's vice presidency. "He had a bottle of scotch on his desk and a drink in his hand. He poured me a tumbler full and said, 'To the president,' meaning Ford. I said, 'To the president,' meaning Nixon."
And a chapter in the nation's history had ended -- one that, for those who remember the era, still resonates today.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.