Even far in advance of the creation of the 24-hour news cycle, it was no surprise to most readers of morning newspapers to see the words “Nixon Resigns” above the fold on Aug. 8, 1974.
The 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States brings back memories of the most improbable series of events in both American journalism and American history.
The lion’s share of details about the Watergate break-in and cover-up reported by two 20-somethings at the Washington Post, one of whom had been doing restaurant reviews.
Political machinations played out in front of a national audience every day on television. All three commercial channels and public TV aired first the Senate committee investigatory hearings and later the House impeachment hearings.
Stay-at-home moms and retirees missed their soap operas. Children missed their cartoon shows hosted by drunken weathermen who talked to puppets when they weren’t drawing isobars on maps.
But I rushed home from high school every afternoon to watch the hearings, and I stayed tuned through the evening news to get a recap of what had happened while I was in the classroom.
There was enough melodrama for any soap opera and even moments of cartoon-worthy humor.
Of course, there was Tennessee Republican Howard Baker’s succinct distillation of the issue:
“What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
South Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin’s misleading Bubba demeanor and much-caricatured face concealed a laser-sharp intellect.
Connecticut Republican Lowell Weicker upbraided a witness for making a wisecrack in the midst of a national constitutional scandal.
As the momentum for impeachment swept into the House committee presided over by New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino, the room turned into La Scala, a grand opera house where forceful arias filled the air.
A California Republican named Charlie Wiggins proved himself to be a stalwart Nixon defender until the so-called “smoking gun” tape was released. That tape, which was made six days after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, revealed Nixon to have authorized top officials to halt the FBI’s investigation into the crime.
It was more of a shining moment for Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan, whose resonant tones and eloquent defense of the Constitution showed clearly her inspiration for becoming a lawyer.
After two years of legal and emotional wrangling, Nixon still would not give up the Oval Office until his party’s Congressional leaders went to him personally and implored him to resign.
Yet, for all his cluelessness, Nixon had a remarkable moment of clarity in saying goodbye to the White House staff.
He said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
The Richard Nixon who lost the California governor’s race to Pat Brown in 1962 did not have that clarity. That was the Nixon who told reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
If he could have been introspective earlier in his career, he could have saved the nation years of turmoil.