On this day in 1974, President Richard M. Nixon announces his resignation from office “effective at noon tomorrow,” the first American President to date to do so. In the throes of the Watergate scandal, and with Articles of Impeachment pending before Congress, Nixon was finally bowing to pressure from the public and Congress to leave the White House. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 of Nixon’s staff and associates, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty and not less than seven, including Attorney General John Mitchell, going to prison.
The entire affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex on Saturday, June 17, 1972. The FBI investigated and discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. In July 1973, evidence mounted against the president’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation by the Senate Watergate Committee; that inquiry revealed Nixon had used a tape-recording system in his offices on which he had captured countless conversations.
After a series of Nixon’s cloying, feckless court battles, denials and maneuvers, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the President was obliged to release all the tapes, including the “gappy” ones and the “smoking gun tape” to government investigators (United States v. Nixon). These tapes revealed Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the break-in, and used federal officials to deflect the investigation.
On the night of August 7, 1974, Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott and Congressman John Jacob Rhodes met with Nixon in the Oval Office; Scott and Rhodes were the Republican leaders in the Senate and House, and Goldwater was brought along as an elder statesman. The three lawmakers told Nixon his support in Congress had all but disappeared, and Rhodes told Nixon that he would face certain impeachment when the articles came up for vote in the full House. Goldwater and Scott in turn told the president that there were enough votes in the Senate to convict him, and that no more than 15 Senators were willing to vote for acquittal.
In his televised resignation, Nixon typically abjured personal responsibility for the earth-shaking scandal, claiming “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body . . .To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.”
Any similarity to current events is purely coincidental and neither the fault nor intent of this humble scribe. That said, many would see Nixon as Cicero compared to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.