Forty years ago on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon became the only American president to resign from office.
His departure came because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up, which began when Republican campaign operatives broke into Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington in June of 1972.
It is a scandal that left a huge impact on national politics and some of the reforms enacted in its wake continue to reverberate today.
But none of that was apparent on the night of August, 8, when a high-stakes political drama was playing out in the White House that would end in Nixon waving goodbye the next day before stepping into a helicopter on the White House lawn.
Not a 'quitter'
It was on that night that Nixon went before television cameras in the Oval Office and announced he would resign the following day.
“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 interests of America first.”
In an emotional speech to White House staff the next morning, Nixon seemed to touch on one of the reasons for his political downfall, though whether he knew it at the time remains open to interpretation.
“Always remember, others may hate you,” he said. “But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
The nightmare is over
Shortly thereafter the new president, Gerald Ford, sought to reassure a nation that had just witnessed the first presidential resignation in history.
The words were simple but eloquent and a tribute to the enduring nature of American democracy.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” he said. “Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.”
Several Nixon aides went to jail for crimes and abuses of power committed during the Watergate scandal. White House tape recordings implicated Nixon in the cover-up when he ordered aides to tell the CIA to lie to the FBI in an effort to thwart the Watergate investigation.
Ford would later pardon Nixon of any criminal culpability in a move that may have cost him the 1976 presidential election, won by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Important turning point
American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman said the Watergate scandal remains an important turning point in U.S. political history.
“Watergate remains tremendously significant,” he explained. “It is still, to date, the most comprehensive attempt by a president and his administration to undermine the democratic process.”
The Watergate scandal unfolded over a two-year period, much of it first uncovered and documented by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Lichtman said journalists investigating Watergate and the president’s involvement in a political cover-up was crucial.
“Had it not been for the journalism of (Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein and their inside source, Nixon may well have gotten away with it,” he said. “So the system worked but it did work precariously and you know the lesson is you have got to be ever-vigilant.”
The Watergate scandal also led to congressional reform of the campaign finance system, though some of those reforms have been undone by recent Supreme Court decisions.
Watergate also ushered in a new, more divisive political era that has become even more polarized in recent years.
Norman Ornstein, a political analyst who took part in a recent panel discussion on the Watergate scandal at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington said, “We began to see the tensions increase but they were nowhere near what we have now. What I see now is a level of tribalism, not simply polarization, that is something we haven’t seen in the country pretty much since the period right around the Civil War.”
Americans have changed their minds about one aspect of the Watergate scandal.
In 1974, 59 percent opposed President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. But by 2002, an ABC News survey found that 59 percent believed that Ford had done the right thing in granting the pardon as part of an effort to reunify the country in the wake of one of the worst political scandals in its history.