The "long, national nightmare" of Watergate, to which Gerald Ford referred in his first speech as president, ended with Richard Nixon's official resignation on Friday, Aug. 9, 1974.
But the nightmare really came to an end for Nixon on Thursday, Aug. 8, 1974, when he spoke to the nation and announced that he would resign the next day.
I remember our family sitting in our living room watching the TV. My parents were never Nixon supporters. In fact, I have many memories of my father talking back to the TV when Nixon made speeches. But on that evening, my parents sat quietly, listening to every word.
It had been reported on all three networks that Nixon was going to resign, but, somehow, it didn't seem official until he said that he was going to resign. And even then, you kinda wanted to see it happen. That's the way it was with Nixon. He could say the sky was blue and the grass was green, but you wanted to see it for yourself.
Well, that is the way it was with his supporters.
His diehard opponents never seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything.
Harry Truman once observed that Nixon was "one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides."
And, true to form, there were times in his resignation speech when he was self–serving, but probably not as many as I expected. And there were times when he seemed a bit combative, a bit defensive, almost as if he remained prepared to resist the idea of resigning.
Certainly, he lied. He claimed his family had unanimously urged him to remain in office and fight the accusations, but that wasn't entirely true. His sons–in–law may have favored that initially, but, as I wrote yesterday, they had evolved in their thinking by August 1974. On the evening of August 8, though, only Nixon and his immediate family knew that.
Nixon was decisive in his speech to the nation. He had made his choice. He was resigning because it was in the nation's best interest. He made that clear. He was doing this for others. Richard Nixon does not come first, he seemed to be saying.
Richard Nixon always came first. He was in control of everything, he knew everything that went on in his White House. Nothing was done without his knowledge and approval. He did what he wanted to do; if you got in his way, his enablers got rid of you.
Oliver Stone gave us quite an insight into Nixon's personality in his movie "Nixon."
Speaking to his wife, Nixon says, "This is about me. Why can't you understand that, you of all people? It's not the war — it's Nixon! They want to destroy Nixon! And if I expose myself even the slightest bit they'll tear my insides out."
At the end of his presidency, Richard Nixon was like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." If you remember his brief appearance in the movie, the Black Knight blocks King Arthur and forces him into a duel. King Arthur proceeds to dismember the Black Knight until, at last, the Black Knight has no more limbs. "All right," he says. "We'll call it a draw!"
That was Nixon. He had been backed into a corner, convicted by tapes of his own voice speaking the words that incriminated him. There was no way he could win a vote in the House, nor could he win a trial in the Senate. But when he left, he was going to make sure that we knew he was making a sacrifice.
In fact, he had copped a plea bargain, and he was going to skip town the next day in full view of everyone.
But the American public was ready to pay whatever price had to be paid to be rid of Richard Nixon. If that meant massaging his ego a little to get him out of there, so be it.
When Americans went to bed that night, they wanted to be sure someone else would be president the next day.