Forty years ago tonight, Richard Nixon announced to America and the world that he had decided to resign the presidency the next day.
There is often something kind of touching about watching someone who has fallen from grace in a very public way. Ordinarily, that person has been humbled by the experience and is conciliatory in his choice of words.
Nixon was one of the exceptions to that rule — although I must say that I thought he did an admirable job of maintaining his composure through the speech. (He really did seem to be on the brink of a breakdown the next day, though, when he said goodbye to the White House staff.)
"His eyes were pouched," wrote historian Theodore White, "the lines of his cheeks sharper than ever, his jowls puffy," but "[h]is voice was firm, the underquaver rarely surfacing."
His appearance belied a basic fact about how he perceived the world and the president's role in it. His Watergate experience seemed to contradict long–held convictions Nixon had about the presidency.
It is clear to me that, 24 hours earlier, Richard Nixon was a man suffering from severe inner turmoil. In their book "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that, the night before his speech, Nixon summoned his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to the White House. After their conversation, Nixon asked Kissinger to get on his knees and pray with him. At some point, Nixon began to sob, and he implored the heavens, "What have I done?"
Nixon was a "broken man," Kissinger said, and he tried to console him but eventually left. Later that evening, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon called Kissinger and asked him never to tell anyone "that I cried and that I was not strong."
He rallied himself, though, and gave a respectable speech 40 years ago tonight.
American Rhetoric ranked his resignation speech #39 among the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. But I wonder whether that was based on the structure of the speech — or its historical significance. Personally, I would be inclined to choose the latter.
It seems to me the speech announcing the first–ever (and, so far, only) presidential resignation would be historically significant no matter what was said — or how it was said — as long as at least one sentence had "I" as its subject and "resign" as its verb. That's really all that the hundreds of millions of people around the world who were watching and listening wanted to hear.
Besides, even with the luxury of time to prepare one's words for an important (and inevitable) moment, things don't always come out the way the speaker might have liked.
(Earlier in 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run and moved past Babe Ruth into the all–time top spot in baseball's record book. In anticipation of that moment, I have heard that the radio announcer for Aaron's team, the Atlanta Braves, spent a lot of time going over what he would say on the air, figuring that his words would be remembered and quoted. Apparently, he had several things in mind from which to choose, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the mighty blow. When the big moment came, though, he was so carried away that all he could say was "There's a new home run king." Kind of obvious, wouldn't you say?)
I didn't think the speech was especially eloquent. Nor did it strike me as being particularly generous. It certainly wasn't apologetic. Nixon started the speech — as he usually seemed to do — in a self–serving way.
"In all the decisions I have made in my public life," Nixon said, "I have always tried to do what was best for the nation." Right off the bat, he was justifying the motivation for all his actions as being what was "best for the nation."
One of those things that was in the best interest of the nation — in Nixon's mind, anyway — was his beliefthat he should "persevere" and "make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me."
He made it sound as if he owed it to the people who had voted for him overwhelmingly two years earlier — even though fewer than one–fourth of the respondents in the latest Gallup poll approved of the job he had been doing.
But, following the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court forcing him to surrender the subpoenaed tapes and the Judiciary Committee's approval of Articles of Impeachment, "it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort."
That was an understatement. After the discovery of the so–called "smoking gun" — the tape of the June 23, 1972 conversation that clearly implicated Nixon — it was reported that he could count on the support of only 10 senators when the trial was held in the Senate. He did not need a majority vote in the Senate to avoid conviction, but he did need many more votes than 10.
Beyond that, though, my impression was that people simply wanted Nixon to acknowledge what he had done. He had put the nation through two years of agony; people wanted him to take responsibility for his actions. He did no such thing. He made it clear he believed it was because of Congress' actions (or likely actions) that he was being forced from office, not because of anything he had done.
Nixon saw himself as blameless, a victim. If anyone needed any further proof of that, it came along a few years later when David Frost conducted his famous post–presidency interviews with Nixon. "If the president does it," Nixon told Frost, "that means it is not illegal."
"It," of course, was a generalization referring to anything a president did in office. It might be against the law for anyone else to do it, but the president would be doing it for the nation's good. That is entirely different from doing it for personal gain.
In Nixon's mind, the president was different from other citizens (even though, since the presidency is not passed from one generation to the next like a crown, the president always starts out as an ordinary citizen) because, by definition, the president was decent and good, and his only motivation was the welfare of the country. I suppose such a simplistic view must have its roots in childhood; unfortunately, I fear such altruistic individuals are rarely found in real life.
"I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved," Nixon said, "and my family unanimously urged me to do so."
(Well, there was considerable doubt about that at the time.)
"But the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations."
That was a theme to which he returned again and again. Perhaps he believed it allowed him to save a little face, this pretense that somehow he was making a sacrifice for his country.
"To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body," Nixon said, "but as president, I must put the interest of America first."
Probably the closest that Nixon came to apologizing was when he said, "[I]f some of my judgments were wrong — and some were wrong — they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation."
John Herbers of the New York Times felt that Nixon "may well have delivered his most effective speech" since the dawning of the Watergate scandal.
I'll go along with that — since none of his previous Watergate speeches managed to keep him from his appointment with destiny.