Today is a historical anniversary that, while I’m sure won’t go un-noticed, may well go unappreciated. Thirty-nine years ago today, on August 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon resigned as President of the United States, the only president (thus far) to do so. Gerald Ford took over as the nation’s 37th President that afternoon. This was a pivotal event in U.S. political and social history. Nothing was ever quite the same, but perhaps for reasons that are under-appreciated or outright misunderstood.
Nixon, of course, resigned because of the Watergate scandal. In 1972, as he was running for re-election, a group of political spies paid by the White House broke into some Democratic Party offices to snoop around, and they got caught. This wasn’t really what got Nixon into trouble. What happened was, three days later, he told an aide, Bob Haldeman, to call the FBI and tell them to stop investigating the case. With those words, Nixon committed a crime–obstruction of justice–and the crime was caught on tape. In 1973 it was revealed Nixon recorded many of his conversations in the White House. He fought a year-long battle to keep the tapes, and especially this one, from coming out, but the Supreme Court ruled he had to turn them over. His political support drained away. To forestall impeachment and conviction, you might say Nixon “ragequit.”
I think the emotion he was feeling was more sorrow and shame than rage. Look at this, the full recording of his farewell speech to the White House staff. It’s 21 minutes long, but click over to 19:06 and hear his interesting advice to those who want to continue in government.
“Always give your best, never vet discouraged, never be petty, always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
These are sage words, even more resonant in our own era when partisan rancor is at an all-time high. I think, 39 years later, that we tend to see Watergate and the Nixon tragedy in reductive terms, in political terms. It was a party affair, smearing by the press, an attempt to bring down a President; or else it was a crime, a shocking abuse of power, a threat to the American system. Nowadays every wrongdoing or perceived wrongdoing in Washington is blown up into a scandal and instantly compared to Watergate (the recent nonsense about Benghazi being case in point). In this reductive view we lose sight of why Watergate happened, who Nixon was, and what his advice really means. I neither defend Nixon’s actions nor seek to condemn him–the man has been dead for 19 years–but I do suggest that his words are worth considering.
Nixon’s resignation put a scar on the American system and the American Constitution that will never really be erased. And it led to so much. If there was no Watergate, would there have been Jimmy Carter? If no Carter, would Reagan’s message of resurgent conservatism have found such a receptive ear? Without Reagan would we have had Bush–the first and second wars in Iraq–Obama–Afghanistan–the financial crisis? Nixon set a stone rolling down a hill, and we still don’t know where it’s headed. Taking the long view of history, we must be wary of making snap judgments.
Farewell, Mr. President.