Five Days in August That Changed the Nation

This day, 40 years ago, Richard Nixon’s defenses crumbled and a humiliated man went into exile. Here is what I witnessed.

9th AUGUST 1974: President Richard Nixon with arms outstretched with veed fingers at doorway to helicopter as he departs after his resignation with others on ground.
National Journal
Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
Aug. 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

Forty years ago Fri­day, Amer­ica’s gravest con­sti­tu­tion­al crisis since the Civil War ended with the un­think­able — the resig­na­tion of an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent in dis­grace. After more than two years of leg­al and polit­ic­al trauma that wracked and di­vided a na­tion, the 2,026 days of Richard M. Nix­on’s pres­id­ency were over.

It’s dif­fi­cult to con­vey the enorm­ity of those har­row­ing times to gen­er­a­tions who have lived through 9/11, two po­lar­iz­ing wars, a pres­id­ency de­cided by the courts, the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent, and the Great Re­ces­sion. Yet in its day, Wa­ter­gate was just as seis­mic.

It shook the found­a­tions of our re­pub­lic, en­ga­ging all three branches of gov­ern­ment on an ugly col­li­sion course, pit­ting mil­lions against one an­oth­er in ideo­lo­gic­al com­bat, and shat­ter­ing the coun­try’s faith in its lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions.

Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to civil liber­ties was sorely chal­lenged by a “plumb­er’s unit” cre­ated to spy on White House polit­ic­al ad­versar­ies and an­ti­war zealots. A pres­id­ent of the United States tried to con­ceal crim­in­al deeds by claim­ing his agents were pro­tect­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity. When a spe­cial pro­sec­utor who was ap­poin­ted to find the truth came too close to it, the pres­id­ent fired him in the in­fam­ous “Sat­urday Night Mas­sacre.” It was, un­be­liev­ably, the stuff of ba­nana re­pub­lics.

In today’s 24/7, so­cial-me­dia-driv­en uni­verse, Wa­ter­gate would have played out in a few months; it dragged on for parts of three years, riv­et­ing the na­tion and dom­in­at­ing head­lines morn­ing and night.

Though justice ul­ti­mately pre­vailed and our demo­crat­ic pro­cesses sur­vived, Wa­ter­gate’s cor­ros­ive fal­lout is with us still. Ever since, polit­ic­al lead­ers are viewed with more sus­pi­cion and cyn­icism. Pres­id­ents aren’t con­sidered nearly so trust­worthy any­more. Es­cal­at­ing po­lar­iz­a­tion between Con­gress and the White House has crippled bi­par­tis­an gov­ernance. Re­port­ers and pres­id­ents have little use for each oth­er now. All this traces to Wa­ter­gate.

What fol­lows is a per­son­al re­mem­brance — not just of his­tory, but his­tory that altered Amer­ica forever. I was for­tu­nate to watch it all un­fold firsthand, es­pe­cially that fate­ful fi­nal week, as the 29-year-old White House cor­res­pond­ent for New­s­week.

Four dec­ades later, in one of life’s small iron­ies, my of­fice at Na­tion­al Journ­al is in the Wa­ter­gate com­plex. Driv­ing to work I pass the old Howard John­son’s mo­tor lodge, now a George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity dorm, where Nix­on par­tis­ans mon­itored a botched burg­lary of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s Wa­ter­gate headquar­ters across the street on the night of June 17, 1972.

* * * * * *

At 12:20 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nix­on’s press sec­ret­ary entered the White House brief­ing room. We knew it must be ser­i­ous — Ron Zie­g­ler had checked his Marl­boro Lights, Styro­foam cup of cof­fee, and trade­mark cock­i­ness at the door.

Zie­g­ler’s brief­ing las­ted just 83 words and he had trouble fin­ish­ing. “To­night at nine o’clock East­ern Day­light Time,” he an­nounced, strug­gling to main­tain his com­pos­ure, “the pres­id­ent of the United States will ad­dress the na­tion on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion from his Oval Of­fice.”

As Zie­g­ler left the po­di­um, a Wall Street Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent once again shouted the ques­tion he’d been ask­ing at every press brief­ing for weeks: “Ron, is the pres­id­ent go­ing to resign?”

Early on, Zie­g­ler had de­nounced the break-in as a “third-rate burg­lary.” Even a year in­to the scan­dal, Nix­on pro­fessed his ig­nor­ance and in­no­cence. “I am not a crook,” he fam­ously in­sisted in Or­lando, Fla., in Novem­ber 1973.

By then, however, Nix­on’s dam­age-con­trol ef­forts were crater­ing. Guided by an FBI agent known as Deep Throat, The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein had pro­duced a steady stream of block­buster scoops doc­u­ment­ing that the Wa­ter­gate burg­lars had been cho­reo­graphed by re­tired in­tel­li­gence agents with close ties to the 1972 Nix­on reelec­tion ap­par­at­us and with­in the White House.

A Sen­ate spe­cial com­mit­tee was try­ing to de­term­ine, in the im­mor­tal phrase of the late Sen. Howard Baker, “what did the pres­id­ent know and when did he know it.” Spe­cial Pro­sec­utor Le­on Ja­wor­ski, a le­gendary tri­al law­yer from Texas, was haul­ing pres­id­en­tial as­so­ci­ates be­fore a fed­er­al grand jury. Nix­on’s chief of staff and do­mest­ic policy ad­viser had been forced to resign after Wood­ward and Bern­stein re­por­ted their com­pli­city in the cov­er-up.

When White House aide Al­ex­an­der But­ter­field told the Wa­ter­gate com­mit­tee that Nix­on had been secretly tap­ing his Oval Of­fice con­ver­sa­tions, Ja­wor­ski sub­poenaed the tapes. Nix­on re­fused, claim­ing ex­ec­ut­ive priv­ilege. The spe­cial pro­sec­utor sued the pres­id­ent, trig­ger­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al con­front­a­tion between the ex­ec­ut­ive branch and the ju­di­ciary. On Ju­ly 24, 1974, a un­an­im­ous Su­preme Court ruled that Nix­on must sur­render the tapes.

Monday, Au­gust 5

After 26 months, the en­dgame reached a stun­ning cres­cendo in just five days, be­gin­ning on the af­ter­noon of Monday, Aug. 5, when the White House re­leased tran­scripts of three tapes. Shortly be­fore they were made pub­lic, Nix­on’s chief of staff, Al­ex­an­der Haig, con­vened about 100 White House seni­or aides in the Old Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­fice Build­ing. He warned that “ma­ter­i­al dam­aging to us” was about to be re­leased and ex­hor­ted them to stay at their posts for the good of the na­tion.

Even more telling, Haig had already in­formed Vice Pres­id­ent Ger­ald Ford that the tapes were a game-changer and that Ford should be­gin think­ing about pre­par­ing him­self to be­come pres­id­ent.

“After that meet­ing, the odds were over­whelm­ing that I would be pres­id­ent,” Ford told me 17 years later. “Of course, even then Haig was say­ing, ‘One minute he’s go­ing to resign, the next minute he’s go­ing to fight it through.’ “

The three 1972 con­ver­sa­tions between Nix­on and Chief of Staff H.R. Hal­de­man de­mol­ished Nix­on’s con­ten­tion that he was merely the in­no­cent vic­tim of overzeal­ous sub­or­din­ates. They showed con­vin­cingly that Nix­on had been deeply in­volved. In fact, one of them re­vealed he was con­spir­ing to cov­er up the break-in six days after it happened — nine months be­fore he claimed he first learned of the in­cid­ent.

The in­crim­in­at­ing tran­scripts not only sealed Nix­on’s fate, they coined a new phrase in the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al lex­icon: “the smoking gun.”

I called my boss, New­s­week‘s le­gendary bur­eau chief Mel Elfin, and read him what we liked to call the “nut graf” from each of the tapes. Mel had im­pec­cable polit­ic­al in­stincts, but this was a no-brain­er. “It’s over,” he said. “You’re about to cov­er the biggest story of your life.”

Tues­day, Au­gust 6

After a 10-minute hair­cut in the base­ment barber shop, Nix­on walked up­stairs for an emer­gency Cab­in­et meet­ing. For 88 minutes, he led the con­ver­sa­tion as if the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment were para­mount on his mind. He began by say­ing he wanted to talk about the most im­port­ant prob­lem fa­cing the coun­try — in­fla­tion.

At some point he brought up the Wa­ter­gate crisis, dis­sect­ing the mess for about 25 minutes. Yes, he ac­know­ledged, he’d made some mis­takes; these were dif­fi­cult times for him and his fam­ily, but he in­ten­ded to sol­dier on and let “the con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­cess” go for­ward.

The de­lu­sion­al qual­ity of the meet­ing was jerked back to real­ity when George H.W. Bush, chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, po­litely sug­ges­ted it was time for Nix­on to resign. Sev­er­al par­ti­cipants later re­por­ted that Nix­on kept talk­ing, ig­nor­ing Bush’s re­com­mend­a­tion as though it had nev­er been uttered.

Cer­tain that Nix­on hadn’t got­ten the mes­sage, Bush fol­lowed up with a per­son­al note:

“It is my con­sidered judg­ment that you should now resign. I ex­pect in your lonely em­battled po­s­i­tion this would seem to you as an act of dis­loy­alty from one you have sup­por­ted and helped in so many ways. My own view is that I would now ill serve a pres­id­ent whose massive ac­com­plish­ments I will al­ways re­spect and whose fam­ily I love, if I did not now give you my judg­ment. Un­til this mo­ment resig­na­tion has been no an­swer at all, but giv­en the im­pact of the latest de­vel­op­ment, and it will be a last­ing one, I now firmly feel resig­na­tion is best for the coun­try, best for this pres­id­ent. I be­lieve this view is held by most Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers across the coun­try. This let­ter is much more dif­fi­cult be­cause of the grat­it­ude I will al­ways have for you. If you do leave of­fice his­tory will prop­erly re­cord your achieve­ments with a last­ing re­spect.”

By day’s end, Nix­on’s de­fenses were crum­bling. All 10 Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee who had voted against im­peach­ment now agreed the pres­id­ent must go.

Wed­nes­day, Au­gust 7

Late Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, as what little polit­ic­al sup­port he had left evap­or­ated, Nix­on met with three of his old­est friends from Con­gress: Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Hugh Scott, House Minor­ity Lead­er John Rhodes, and Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter, one of the pres­id­ent’s con­ser­vat­ive her­oes. The meet­ing las­ted only 23 minutes be­cause the lead­ers car­ried a simple, non­nego­ti­able mes­sage: If Nix­on didn’t resign, the House would im­peach him; he’d then be tried in the Sen­ate, con­victed, and re­moved from of­fice. If he were lucky, they guessed, 15 of the 100 sen­at­ors would stick with him.

Gold­wa­ter de­livered the coup de grace: If it came to that, he told his old friend, he would be among the ma­jor­ity of sen­at­ors vot­ing to con­vict. Resig­na­tion was now a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

Thursday, Au­gust 8

With Zie­g­ler’s noon­time Thursday an­nounce­ment of a prime-time pres­id­en­tial speech, the Nix­on death watch con­sumed a White House, city, and na­tion. Shaken Nix­on staffers gamely car­ried on, strug­gling to cope with the real­ity that Nix­on was a gon­er.

One press aide re­ferred to the Nix­on fam­ily din­ner the night be­fore as “the last sup­per.” A dry-eyed West Wing sec­ret­ary said in a voice scarcely above a whis­per: “It’s like death. You know it’s com­ing but it doesn’t really hit you un­til after it hap­pens.”

One of Nix­on’s stoutest de­fend­ers, who’d been with him since the ill-fated 1960 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign against John F. Kennedy, pro­nounced the va­le­dict­ory to the tragedy of Richard Nix­on.

“When you think,” he said, pound­ing a fist on his desk, “what we could have done with the (second-term) man­date he got in 1972, it really makes you sick to your stom­ach.”

Nix­on’s fi­nal full day as pres­id­ent began with a sleep­less night. Between 3:58 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. he spoke twice with Zie­g­ler and four times with speech­writer Ray Price.

At 11 o’clock he met with Jerry Ford, an old friend since their days in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in the late 1940s. For 70 minutes they talked and re­min­isced. Nix­on em­phat­ic­ally urged Ford to keep Henry Kis­sing­er as sec­ret­ary of State; Ford eagerly con­curred.

Nix­on walked around his desk, wrapped his left arm around the about-to-be pres­id­ent and wished him well.

“I was sur­prised about how cool and com­posed he was,” Ford told me in re­tire­ment. “It was a warm but … ob­vi­ously an emo­tion­al meet­ing. His com­pos­ure was strong.”

At 9:01 p.m. from the Oval Of­fice, Nix­on de­livered a 15-minute farewell ad­dress to the na­tion, ac­know­ledging his polit­ic­al base had eroded to the point where he couldn’t be ef­fect­ive.

“I have nev­er been a quit­ter,” he said. “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.

“There­fore, I shall resign the pres­id­ency ef­fect­ive at noon to­mor­row.”

Across Pennsylvania Av­en­ue in La­fay­ette Square, thou­sands of Nix­on-haters, Vi­et­nam War pro­test­ers, and gawkers had gathered in the en­er­vat­ing hu­mid­ity to await the in­ev­it­able and wit­ness a pivot point in his­tory. At the pre­cise in­stant Nix­on an­nounced his resig­na­tion, a shriek of ju­bil­a­tion erup­ted from the crowd, a roar so loud and gut­tur­al that it cas­caded across the av­en­ue, North Lawn of the White House, and through the sealed win­dows of the brief­ing room. As I watched from a small black-and-white tele­vi­sion in the base­ment, the noise drowned out Nix­on’s next line: “Vice Pres­id­ent Ford will be sworn in as pres­id­ent at that hour in this of­fice.”

The hair on my arms stood straight up. Forty years later, that hap­pens again without fail each time I re­peat the story.

What he termed “the Wa­ter­gate mat­ter” was men­tioned in passing. “I would say only that if some of my judg­ments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I be­lieved at the time to be the best in­terest of the na­tion,” an as­ser­tion long ago re­jec­ted by a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans.

It was an em­in­ently pres­id­en­tial per­form­ance, meas­ured and states­man­like, per­haps his finest speech in nearly 30 years as a con­gress­man, sen­at­or, vice pres­id­ent, and pres­id­ent.

Fri­day, Au­gust 9

His of­fi­cial farewell had been de­livered in a firm, steady voice, ab­sent malice and devoid of emo­tion. Not so the next morn­ing, when Nix­on as­sembled sev­er­al hun­dred friends and staffers in the East Room for a speech so wrench­ing to watch that even some arch-en­emies ad­mit­ted a pang of sym­pathy for a hu­mi­li­ated fel­low hu­man strug­gling to keep from un­rav­el­ing.

As many in the audi­ence wept openly and he him­self al­most broke down more than once, Nix­on was ram­bling, dis­join­ted, tor­tured, awk­ward, maudlin — and, in his own way, power­ful.

Poignantly he paid trib­ute to his par­ents; first his fath­er, a failed lem­on ranch­er yet still a “great man” be­cause he did his job des­pite many trav­ails.

Then, he re­min­isced, al­most break­ing down, “My moth­er was a saint.”

How Nix­on got through it I’ll nev­er know. But some­how he did, at times rising to an elo­quence that oth­er­wise eluded him his en­tire ca­reer.

To­ward the end, he spoke a line for the ages:

“Al­ways re­mem­ber, oth­ers may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win un­less you hate them — and then you des­troy your­self.”

Noble words, in­deed. Yet this was the same guy, I thought at that mo­ment, who kept an “en­emies list” of polit­ic­al op­pon­ents, railed in private against blacks and Jews, and vowed to un­leash the IRS to settle scores with those he was con­vinced were out to des­troy him.

Still, it was ar­gu­ably Nix­on’s most mem­or­able mo­ment in pub­lic life.

Wait­ing out­side on the South Lawn, Man­olo Sanc­hez, Nix­on’s faith­ful Cuban-born valet, was pre­par­ing to ac­com­pany the boss in­to ex­ile with his wife Fina, Pat Nix­on’s as­sist­ant. “I de­cide is my duty to go with this man be­cause I know he’s kinda sad,” a be­wildered Sanc­hez told me. “I don’t be­lieve this thing hap­pen.”

Three minutes after his East Room farewell, Nix­on and his fam­ily joined Jerry and Betty Ford. They walked down a long red car­pet between a mil­it­ary hon­or guard. The wives em­braced, their hus­bands shook hands.

“Dick, I’m sorry about this, you did a good job.” Ford said. “Good luck, Jerry,” the 37th pres­id­ent replied.

He briskly walked up Army One’s ramp, turn­ing for a ma­gis­teri­al wave to thun­der­ous ap­plause. Then, al­most as an af­ter­thought, he snapped off that fi­nal de­fi­ant ges­ture his lib­er­al ad­versar­ies hated most: the double V-for-vic­tory sa­lute.

From his cab­in, Nix­on stared at the red car­pet be­ing rolled up, an­oth­er meta­phor of de­cline. The heli­copter lif­ted slowly, banked to star­board to­ward the Jef­fer­son Me­mori­al, then turned left for the short hop to An­drews Air Force Base and ex­ile to his La Casa Pa­ci­fica re­treat in San Clem­ente, Cal­if.

Walk­ing back to the press room to file a pool re­port, I happened upon a riv­et­ing im­age: the head of Nix­on’s se­cur­ity de­tail star­ing at the van­ish­ing helo, tears stream­ing down both cheeks.

“I totally lost it,” Dick Keiser told me years later over lunch. “I couldn’t help it. We’re all trained to re­act without emo­tion, to take a bul­let for a guy no mat­ter what we think of him per­son­ally. But after all he’d been through, you just couldn’t help feel­ing bad for him.”

Keiser is now a hale 80, long re­tired from the Secret Ser­vice, but the memor­ies of that mo­ment on the South Lawn en­dure. “You’re will­ing to lit­er­ally spend your life pro­tect­ing someone,” he re­membered last week, “and all of a sud­den watch­ing them suf­fer the greatest hurt of their life and you can’t do any­thing about it — I was help­less. It was very emo­tion­al for me.”

Three minutes past noon, Jerry Ford was sworn in as the 38th pres­id­ent — on the same East Room plat­form where Nix­on said his farewells two hours earli­er. Tech­nic­ally, he was already pres­id­ent; Nix­on’s one-sen­tence resig­na­tion let­ter to Sec­ret­ary of State Henry Kis­sing­er was re­ceived at 11:35.

Ford had gra­ciously set aside prime seats for many of Nix­on’s seni­or aides. I still re­mem­ber Al Haig pat­ting a grim-faced Rose­mary Woods on the arm, try­ing to as­sure Nix­on’s most ded­ic­ated, loy­al-to-a-fault per­son­al as­sist­ant that time would heal her grief. Woods wasn’t buy­ing it; she stared word­lessly straight ahead at the po­di­um where her be­loved boss had still been lead­er of the free world just that morn­ing.

“My fel­low Amer­ic­ans, our long na­tion­al night­mare is over,” Ford re­as­sured. “Our Con­sti­tu­tion works; our great re­pub­lic is a gov­ern­ment of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

When he asked the coun­try to pray for Nix­on, Ford’s voice quavered and his eyes mis­ted: “May our former pres­id­ent, who brought peace to mil­lions, find it for him­self.”

It had been a re­mark­able 24 hours of tri­umph and tragedy — tri­umph for demo­cracy’s re­si­li­ence and the rule of law, tragedy for a man and a pres­id­ent.

Leav­ing the White House hours later that mo­nu­ment­al Fri­day, I un­ex­pec­tedly came upon one last bit of drama, a hope­ful omen that Nix­on’s leav­ing may have fi­nally be­gun a heal­ing pro­cess the coun­try so des­per­ately craved.

For weeks, a de­term­ined band of pro­test­ers on the north side of Pennsylvania Av­en­ue had waved ban­ners ur­ging mo­tor­ists to “honk if you think he’s guilty.” My en­dur­ing memory of that mo­ment­ous sum­mer was en­ter­ing and leav­ing the White House ser­en­aded by a ca­co­phony of horns. The honk­ing went on for hours day after day, well in­to the night.

Now, with one pres­id­ent ab­ruptly gone and his suc­cessor pledging to “bind up the in­tern­al wounds of Wa­ter­gate, more pain­ful and more pois­on­ous than any for­eign wars,” the horns at last were si­lent.

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