News / USA

    Nixon Resignation Still Resonates 40 Years After Watergate

    FILE - In this March 15, 1973, file photo President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation.
    FILE - In this March 15, 1973, file photo President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation.

    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.

    In this Aug. 9, 1974, file photo, Richard Nixon says goodbye to members of his staff outside the White House in Washington as he boards a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base after resigning the presidency in Washington.In this Aug. 9, 1974, file photo, Richard Nixon says goodbye to members of his staff outside the White House in Washington as he boards a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base after resigning the presidency in Washington.
    In this Aug. 9, 1974, file photo, Richard Nixon says goodbye to members of his staff outside the White House in Washington as he boards a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base after resigning the presidency in Washington.
    In this Aug. 9, 1974, file photo, Richard Nixon says goodbye to members of his staff outside the White House in Washington as he boards a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base after resigning the presidency in Washington.

    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.”
    Congressional reform

    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.

    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Phil Roarke from: Mesquite, Texas
    August 09, 2014 8:21 AM
    Nixon's partners in crime all got jail sentences, but he got off scott free, just like it never happened...but I guess if you're the top dog, there's separate (and favorable) administration of justice.
    In Response

    by: Mark from: Virginia
    August 09, 2014 8:43 PM
    It was never proved that Nixon had a direct hand in Watergate (though evidence showed that he might have). It was not the break-in that brought about his downfall, but his refusal to cooperate with the investigation that put him in hot water and got the masses believing he had something to hide. He faced impeachment for several things, including obstruction of justice, contempt and hindering a federal investigation. He was given a choice; impeachment or resignation. Nixon chose the latter, knowing that he would lose the impeachment process. He was not the first to face impeachment, Andrew Jackson was the first, and he narrowly avoided conviction by a singe vote. Clinton was the other, and he too, avoided conviction as a result of Congress being unable to secure the two-thirds majority needed to convict. Nixon was the fish that got away.
    If there ever was a man determined to be President, and utterly wrong for that job, it was Nixon. He didn't get the nickname "Tricky Dick" for nothing....

    by: Gordon from: Connecticut
    August 09, 2014 12:07 AM
    My birthday, then and now. What a gift that was when I was 22 and the scumbag finally said adios. It wasn't tragedy, it was pathos. Everyone, I mean everyone, knew he was a pathetic character from 1952 onwards. Every bad thing that happened to him he brought on himself. He rode to power by appealing to the lunatic fringe, now called mainstream Conservatives. He made paranoia acceptable. A contemptible pretender. Good riddance.

    by: Robert Ryan from: Farmington, Maine
    August 08, 2014 11:44 AM
    Two points here: first, the Watergate break-in was unnecessary, the reasons for it still murky to this day. McGovern was a weak opponent, perceived by most Americans as being too liberal at a time when old New Deal-style liberalism was rapidly losing popular appeal due to general prosperity and also to the racial and Vietnam-related upheavals of the 1960's. The second point is that the Nixon pardon generated increased cynicism at the time about the political process and sent a message to future U.S. Presidents that they could break the law with impunity and get away with it as President Reagan did in relation to the Iran-Contra Affair. It was a very bad and even dangerous precedent to set.
    In Response

    by: Gordon from Haddam from: Haddam, CT
    August 09, 2014 12:37 AM
    Murky? What's murky about it? Nixon had an obsessive enemy perception. His near-fanatical paranoia disgusted even Eisenhower. Despite being way, way far ahead in the polls he was always scared that somehow he'd lose, like in 1960, and that atmosphere pervaded his White House. It's all on the record. Also, he was unprincipled and weirdly in love with the capabilities of "secret ops."

    by: Bearman from: U.S.A.
    August 08, 2014 10:01 AM
    The current administration is in no way as productive as the Nixon Administration and is embroiled in more serious violations of the constitution and the public trust. The current president would do well to follow Nixon's example.
    In Response

    by: Gordon from Haddam from: Haddam, CT
    August 09, 2014 12:42 AM
    Funny you should say that. The "productivity" you mention was a lot like Bill Clinton's. He endorsed things everybody wanted anyway but that Republicans had opposed simply because they had been Democratic initiatives, such as the 18-yr old vote and finding peace with the "Reds" like China. Clinton "won" on "ending" welfare and Defense of Marriage Act. See where that went...

    by: max from: USA
    August 07, 2014 7:38 PM
    Such political hype from the media was unprecedented during Nixon's second term. When we tell kids of today, what the scandal was they're get confused, because it's such small potatoes. Recent scandal with the IRS are much, much more serious and our kids, bless them, recognize the left wing bias in our news media and the obvious hatred the left has for all that is good, decent and right. The culture of anti-culture is coming to an end, the winds of change are a blowing again, but his time in the good, right direction.
    In Response

    by: ad from: ny
    August 08, 2014 11:08 AM
    I agree with most of what you said - but I don't think its a left bias, I think its a $$$$$ bias.

    by: J Getze from: New Jersey
    August 07, 2014 4:18 PM
    It's a shame that Nixon will be remembered most for Watergate when his trip to China -- opening that previously closed dialogue and trade connection -- is the single greatest accomplishment toward world peace in the 20th century.
    In Response

    by: Gordon from Haddam from: Haddam, CT
    August 09, 2014 12:59 AM
    So you might well ask yourself why it didn't happen decades earlier. It was because when basically Democrat-sympathetic experts such as the "Old China Hands" advocated a rapprochement with "Red" China, Nixon led the charge, calling them "soft on Communism" and the like. In fact Nixon only got his nose in the door in China because of 30 years of the careful work of those "softies" who actually knew something about the country, its leaders, and its people. Incidentally, it was Henry Kissinger who engineered it all. He was the brains of the operation.

    by: Mark from: Virginia
    August 07, 2014 12:38 PM
    It may have cost Ford a reelection bid, but he did what no other President could have done... pardoning Nixon. Some may say that Ford concluded a 'devil's pact' with Nixon when Nixon nominated Ford to the Vice-President's position after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign shortly after Nixon's re-election.
    No matter, here is snippet of information I found on the web.. "After Ford left the White House in 1977, the former President privately justified his pardon of Nixon by carrying in his wallet a portion of the text of Burdick v. United States, a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision which stated that a pardon indicated a presumption of guilt, and that acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession of that guilt."

    I remember well the 1972 election when Nixon won by a landslide.. I was in elementary school, 3rd grade I believe, and I ran about the school (with other kids) polling the teachers who they would vote for. Even in that elementary school, Nixon won by a large margin over McGovern. No other President ever rode such a wave of popularity to crash and burn so quickly, and so soon.
    In Response

    by: Gordon from Haddam from: Haddam, CT
    August 09, 2014 1:05 AM
    Funny that, the fickle public. It's only gotten worse. I was there too, although I was 20 and in school in England. I remember a British commentator saying that McGovern appealed to the young, the poor, and the blacks. He then pointed out that a huge majority of American voters were none of those. My heart sank. I realized that I and my friends were a distinct minority and that in a democracy, like it or not, majority rules.

    by: Jeff from: Monterey, California
    August 07, 2014 12:06 PM
    Nixon was elected for his second term by a landslide. Unlike with FDR, there was never even mention or a third term. There is nothing that could have been "stolen" from the Watergate building that would have changed the dynamics of the presidential election. It is absurd that by casting out the elected leader mid term our democracy has been saved.

    The precedent set was that inquiries and witch hunts take precedence over airfares of state. When a party can't govern it concentrates on disrupting governance.

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