It is one of those iconic moments in history that many recall in detail, down to where they were and what they were doing, August 8, 1974, when President Richard Milhous Nixon announced his resignation as 37th President of the United States, effective at noon the next day. He remains the only American president ever to step down from the office. The former president said that he has never been a quitter, and leaving the presidency before the end of his term “is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.” He said he hoped his action would hasten the beginning of the healing process so “desperately needed in America.”
For the two years leading up to his resignation, Nixon had been embroiled in bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals, which led to talks of impeachment and, eventually, the resignation. With over half of America not yet been born when it occurred, Watergate is fading into a note in the history books.
Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace a year earlier, and Gerald R. Ford appointed to take his place. Ford would become the only U.S. President not elected by the public. America admired Ford, describing him as “a leader to be trusted,” but “no intellectual.” The Chicago Tribune reported that Harry Truman was probably the only other man to assume the office of President with such little personal desire and as little preparation. Former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was nominated as Ford’s Vice President.
The Watergate cover-up began on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of a team of five burglars in the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex in Washington. Within a week, hundred-dollar bills that had been found on the burglars were traced back to contributions to the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., treasurer of the Republican National Committee, confirmed to prosecutors that the money was given to G. Gordon Liddy, who was by then suspected of being the conspiracy’s ringleader.
Within 24 hours after the arrest of the burglars the FBI searched their homes and founds checks, address books and receipts that linked White House consultant E. Howard Hunt to the conspiracy. The investigation led to the confirmation that Hunt and Liddy were working together on secret projects, and had received telephone calls from Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars, just hours before the arrest.
The final link in the chain of evidence leading to Nixon’s resignation involved a “listening post” discovered by the FBI at the Howard Johnson Motor Hotel across the street from the Watergate. Conspirators communicated with the burglars inside the Watergate and received transmissions from the Democratic headquarters from electronic eavesdropping devices. Alfred Baldwin was a former FBI agent who had monitored the wiretaps, kept logs of the transmissions and acted as lookout.
Ford pardoned Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal one month after assuming the presidency, after the former president had been accused by Congress of obstruction of justice. White House tape recordings revealed that the former president not only knew about, but had possibly authorized, the break-in and wiretapping of the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. The pardon was Ford’s attempt to put the scandal behind, and he justified the controversial decision by saying a long, drawn-out trial would further polarize the public. It may have been Nixon’s pardon that caused Ford to lose the 1976 presidential election.
Forty government officials were jailed or indicted following Watergate. Hunt and Liddy were both jailed, as was White House legal counsel John Dean. Also jailed were White House staff members John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman, Chairman of the CRP and Attorney-General John Mitchel, CRP security director James McCord and special counsel to the President Charles Colson.
New television programs, books, documentaries and panel discussions have been released coinciding with the 40-year anniversary, many of which rely on Nixon’s tapings of White House conversations. He was not the first president to tape his discussions, but in the case of the scandal and resignation they have provided an in-depth historical record.
Forty years ago August 8, as President Nixon announced his resignation, he said he must put the interests of America first, and that the country needed a “full-time president and a full-time Congress,” referring to the amount of time spent investigating and defending his actions. Nixon said that he deeply regretted any injuries that might have been caused in the course of events leading up to his decision, saying he had done his best to live up to his oath of office.
By Beth A. Balen