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Nixon's Resignation: Forty Years Later

C-Span is not my usual TV viewing fare, but this weekend – when my schedule was trying to return to normal after a week of travel – they aired replays of President Nixon’s two resignation speeches, one to the nation the night before his resignation and one, the next day, to the White House staff. I could not tear myself away and ended up watching them twice. Forty years ago, our nation faced a real constitutional crisis, not a faux crisis contrived by Fox and Friends.

We have learned a great deal about Watergate since it happened. It was obvious then that laws had been broken and that there had been a systematic attempt to cover-up White House involvement with the Watergate break-in. But, it was not clear that Mr. Nixon was not presiding over an administration so much as he was presiding over a criminal gang, indeed leading that gang. As we listened to more of the White House tapes, we learned of Nixon’s bigotry in ways that were not obvious at the time. It is horrible to think – but must always be remembered – that Mr. Nixon won election to the highest office in the land twice. Democracy may be the worst form of government known to human kind except every other kind of government, it may be the best we humans can do, but it is no guarantee of even minimal standards of public decency and Mr. Nixon’s behavior, and that of his top aides, was indecent as well as illegal.

The speech to the nation the night before was clearly the work of the speechwriting team. The next day, President Nixon spoke to the White House staff before leaving for his retirement. That speech, which went off-script several times, was more Nixon the man than Nixon the resigning president. It was horrifying. He was rambling, incoherent at times, unhinged. He talked about his mother and his “old man”. He talked about his foreign policy. He quoted Theodore Roosevelt inappropriately. Towards the end, he imparted advice to the staff that sounded strangely like a self-indictment except he did not acknowledge it as such, saying,

We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get 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.

Mr. Nixon, of course, was consumed by his hatred of others, a walking bundle of resentments. To look back at that morning in the White House is to see a man, still vested with enormous power, coming undone, his sicknesses on full display. It is frightening to watch even all these years later.

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Time sometimes heals wounds. But, time can also obfuscate the thoughts and feelings of those who lived through an experience because we later know how things turned out. It is hard to remember the sense of unprecedentedness that hung over the Watergate scandal. After it became clear that he was going to be impeached by the House and likely convicted by the Senate, Nixon resigned. But, what if he hadn’t? What if he had dug in?

Another question that hung over those times found a reassuring answer: How prepared was the national government to face a large crisis when its executive branch led by a man who had not been elected to national office? C-Span also aired President Gerald R. Ford’s speech after taking the oath of office that August 9, his speech to Congress the following Monday, and his first press conference as president. The oath was administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the East Room of the White House. And, unlike an inaugural ceremony, Burger then introduced Ford to the room – and to the nation – as the President of the United States. In this unprecedented situation, they understood the importance of conveying a sense of constitutional legitimacy. Mr. Ford acknowledged that he had not come to this office by popular vote, and asked the American people to confirm him with their prayers. It was a nice turn of phrase. But, having been thrust into the vice presidency after the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew on account of a different criminal conspiracy, Ford’s ascent was constitutional to be sure, but he was, and remains, the only president in U.S. history not to have run for national office at the time he became president.

Ford was as decent as Nixon was crooked and the nation was well served by his decency. He was a man of the House at a time when the House still functioned. At one point in his speech to Congress, he addressed Speaker of the House Carl Albert from Oklahoma, saying,

Mr. Speaker, I am a little late getting around to it, but confession is good for the soul. I have sometimes voted to spend more taxpayer’s money for worthy federal projects in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while I vigorously opposed wasteful spending boondoggles in Oklahoma.

The joke, not least because of its self-deprecating quality, earned a great deal of laughter while also making a key point: Mr. Ford was no longer the representative of a congressional district in Michigan, but the chief magistrate of the whole people.

One line from that speech to Congress really jumped out at me. President Ford said:

Throughout my public service, starting with wartime naval duty under the command of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I have upheld all our Presidents when they spoke for my country to the world. I believe the Constitution commands this. I know that in this crucial area of international policy, I can count on your firm support.

Ford’s commitment to support any president’s foreign policy was increasingly anachronistic, if not entirely extinguished by the time he said those words. From Pearl Harbor until the Vietnam War, America’s foreign policy had been characterized by bipartisan consensus. But, in 1974, that consensus had melted in public opinion and would further evaporate in the years ahead. Today, there is no public official who could assert, as Ford did, that they had supported every president on foreign policy, still less that the Constitution commanded such support.

Mr. Ford, in his speech after taking the oath of office, said “our long national nightmare is over.” The nightmare that was Watergate did indeed end with Nixon’s resignation. But, other nightmares have beset the nation. Perhaps none are as disturbing as Watergate was, none so obviously criminal, but the divisions that found their source in Nixon’s paranoid mind could be mended by is resignation. What will mend the nightmare of ideological polarization we face today, the sense of public distrust and the lack of any commitment to the common good?

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