WASHINGTON, D.C. — At 8 P.M. on August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, announced from the White House that he would be the first U.S. president to voluntarily step down while still in office.
Addressing the public via television and radio, Nixon announced:
“I have never been a quitter. 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.”
Leading up to this moment, the Watergate scandal raged around Nixon and mesmerized the public. It centered on a break-in and wiretapping of phones at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel during Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign.
On June 17, 1972, five burglars, dispatched to the Watergate to repair the tapped phones from a previous break-in, got caught red-handed. The most famous political scandal in American history erupted right on the spot.
The crisis quickly came to just be called “Watergate.” Nixon denied all knowledge of Watergate, let alone involvement. Five months later, the president handily defeated his Democrat opponent George McGovern with a 49-state landslide.
Still, questions as to whether “Tricky Dick” knew about or was otherwise in on the Watergate invasion continuously snowballed into evidence against him.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relentlessly pursued the Watergate issue, aided by an anonymous insider nicknamed “Deep Throat” (in 2005, the mole’s identity finally came to light as Deputy FBI Director William Mark Felt).
Allegations arose that not only had Nixon sanctioned the crimes, but that he actually ordered “dirty tricks” such as break-ins and surveillance, and then, along with his top team members, abused all manner of executive power to cover it up.
In May 1973, a Congressional committee headed by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin commenced a televised hearing regarding Watergate and swore in Harvard law professor Archibald Cox as an independent special prosecutor.
A web of illegal skullduggery came to light that included the Nixon crew wiretapping thousands of citizens (both public and private), concocting plots against targets on the president’s “Enemies List,” and taking large-scale campaign contributions in exchange for even larger-scale political favors.
In addition, Nixon turned out to be constantly tape-recording conversations in the White House. Cox subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon delayed complying for three months, and then sent over summaries of what he said was on the recordings. When Cox dismissed the write-ups, Nixon used his presidential power to fire the special prosecutor.
Stunningly, Watergate only escalated from there. On November 17, 1973, Nixon addressed a gathering of newspaper editors at (of all places) Walt Disney World and declared forthrightly:
“I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited – never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. Because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”
The phrase “I am not a crook” would haunt Nixon for the rest of his life.
By mid-summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee enacted three articles of impeachment against Nixon. He faced charges of obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process.
Nixon finally released the White House tapes on July 30. Transcripts of the audio, published on August 5, included the president sending an order to the FBI to immediately cease the Watergate investigation.
Three days later, Nixon announced his departure, stating, “By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
On August 9, Richard Nixon officially vacated the presidency. Vice President Gerald Ford was immediately sworn in to the office.
Ford had been elevated from House Speaker to second-in-command after Nixon’s previous VP, Spiro Agnew, resigned on October 10, 1973 and pleaded no contest to charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Ford became the only U.S. leader, then, who had neither been elected president or vice president by the public.
Right after the transition, Nixon walked out of the White House to a waiting helicopter, turned to the press, smiled, and waved his hands with his fingers pointed in a sweeping gesture of “V for Victory.” Nixon flew home from there to San Clemente, California.
In his first words as president, Gerald Ford stated, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
On September 8, Ford issued Proclamation 4311, which granted Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed as president.
Ford went on to serve 895 days in The White House, the shortest term of any president who didn’t die in office. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter defeated Ford for the top spot in 1976.
Main photo: Richard Nixon, Official White House Photo [WikiMedia Commons]