The day is August 9, 1974, President Richard Milhous Nixon officially resigns. The past two years have been rife with political conflict. It has seen members from both sides of the political spectrum make outlandish accusations against each other. It has seen the very U.S. Constitution come into question.
This all began on a warm Saturday night in Washington D.C, June 17, 1972. Five men were arrested for breaking into the Watergate complex with the intent to wiretap phone and procure rival documents. These men were specifically arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Later the next day, Ronald Ziegler, the White House press secretary called the break in a “third-rate burglary”. On June 22, President Nixon holds a press conference to deny any involvement from the White House.
August 1, 1972, The Washington Post reports that a check intended for Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign for $25,000 was deposited into the bank account of Bernard L. Barker, one of the men arrested at Watergate. This would be the first link between Nixon’s campaign and the break-in at Democratic National Committee.
On October 10, 1972. The Washington Post reports that the FBI agents in charge of the investigation had discovered that the incident at Watergate was part of a much larger attempt by the Nixon campaign to spy on, and sabotage, political opponents. It included following members of the Democratic candidates’ families and developing patterns of life on them, leaking fake Democratic documents to the press, forging and distributing letters on candidates own letterheads, and seizing confidential campaign documents. One of the most famous incidents of this intentional disruption was when a White House aid sent a letter to the editor to the Manchester Union Leader posing as Senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), in which “he” approved calling Americans of French Canadian heritage, “Canucks”.
The year 1973 would lead to the discovery that President Nixon had been privately recording talks and calls he had while in his office. Nixon would then refuse to hand over the recordings to the independent special prosecutor of the Watergate Trial, Archibald Cox. This would lead both Cox and other Senate investigators to issue subpoenas for the recordings, as they were considered evidence that Nixon knowingly covered up the break-ins at Watergate.
In October, two Attorney Generals would resign on the same day after refusing Nixon’s efforts to have Archibald Cox fired as special prosecutor. Nixon finally found an Attorney General that would follow his orders to fire Cox, in Robert Bork. This would incite fierce criticism from both political parties and would lead to Nixon’s famous denial of responsibility when he stated, “I’m not a crook.”
After a unanimous Supreme Court ruling (United States v. Nixon) on July 24, 1974, President Nixon was ordered to release the secret tape recordings and other materials that had been subpoenaed. This court decision would play a pivotal role in setting the precedent limiting the power of any U.S. president to claim executive privilege.
In late July, three articles of impeachment were passed by the House Judiciary Committee. These articles were for misuse of power, obstruction of justice, and contempt of Congress. The House Judiciary Committee then sent the impeachment to the floor for the final House vote, which would never take place.
August 8, 1974. Nixon publicly resigns. He would go on to say “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.” He would awake the next day to find his watch had died. He signed the official letter of resignation on August 9, 1974. On his plane ride to California, no longer as President of the United States, he made the statement that the plane smelled better without press on board.
Vice President Gerald Ford would be sworn in as president the same day, and said:
In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end. My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Featured image: President Nixon gestures toward transcripts of White House tapes after announcing he would turn them over to House impeachment investigators and make them public in April of 1974. | AP Photo