On August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation, effective at noon the next day. Forty years later, the saga of Nixon’s rise and fall remains stranger than fiction-and more interesting, too.
In 1960, then Vice President Nixon lost a close race for president to youthful Senator John F. Kennedy. JFK barely carried the popular vote 34,226,731 to Nixon’s 34,108,157, but he won the electoral vote decisively, 303 to 219. Many historians credit JFK’s poise and presence during the national TV debates as a turning point in the race.
Fast forward to 1968, when Nixon arose like the phoenix of old to defeat Vice President Hubert Humphrey, after embattled President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to run for a second term. The popular vote was close. Nixon won 31,785,480 votes to Humphrey’s 31,275,166, but he won 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, and George Wallace’s 46.
Nixon soared even higher in 1972. He defeated Democratic opponent George McGovern in popular votes 47,169,911 to 29,170, 383, and devastated him in electoral votes, carrying 49 states, to win 520 to 17. In the thrill of November’s landslide victory, the previous June 17 arrest of five Republican henchmen for breaking into and wiretapping Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. seemed like a minor irritant. However, what began as a trickle soon became a torrent of controversy.
The infamous “Watergate Cover-up” implicated Nixon and members of his inner circle in a scandal that ultimately led to his resignation in the face of near-certain Congressional impeachment and removal from office. After months of denial and stonewalling, Nixon finally gave up. He announced his decision to resign in a televised speech to the nation, saying, “It had become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress” to justify further efforts to remain in office. He did not mention his looming impeachment, nor did he admit being guilty of any of the serious charges brought against him.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first American President ever to resign. A month later, his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, granted him a “full, free, and absolute pardon” for all offenses committed during his administration. Ford’s controversial action saved Nixon from potential indictment and trial. In accepting the pardon, Nixon said, “No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the Presidency...that the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.”
The strange case of Nixon’s rise and fall reminds us power can corrupt and the relentless quest for more power can corrupt absolutely. It also reminds us the American system for presidential succession, warts and all, works, even in the tense and trying times of 1974.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at email@example.com.