Forty years ago on Aug. 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office. Doing so, he said in his final speech from the White House, was "abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But, as president, I must put the interests of America first."
In fact, he put his own personal interests first. Because if he had not resigned, he would have been impeached, forced out of office and likely sent to jail for obstruction of justice.
Only a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, prevented him from being the first president to be incarcerated.
Instead, on Aug. 9, Nixon boarded a helicopter and waved farewell, offering one last victory sign. The television news footage, which can be found on YouTube, also captured Nixon's pathetic dejection and was arguably the low point in the history of American politics. (The resignation farewell was parodied in a hilarious scene on the Seinfeld episode, The Cadillac, when Jerry's father, Morty, was unceremoniously impeached as the president of his Florida condominium.)
Nixon's resignation, of course, was a consequence of the Watergate scandal, the revelations about the electronic bugging of the Democratic party's national committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C.
As is commonly believed, this was part of an organized plot to obtain in any way possible information that would help Nixon, the incumbent Republican, defeat the Democratic candidate in the 1972 presidential election. His zealous supporters did him no good and Nixon would have won re-election with or without resorting to dirty tricks.
The nefarious scheme started to unravel with the arrest of burglars at the Watergate building on June 17, 1972. That led to investigations by the FBI, extensive coverage of the case in the Washington Post by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then two young reporters, and finally to a Senate investigation committee that exposed the Republicans' conniving and the attempted cover-up. Forever after, the suffix "gate" would be attached to each and every political scandal, big and small.
Nixon did not know about the burglary, said John Dean, the White House legal counsel, who told Nixon in March 1973, that there was "a cancer on the presidency." Dean -- whose testimony before the Senate committee revealed the full extent of the plot -- has just published his third book on the subject, The Nixon Defense, that shows, however, Nixon's culpability in the cover-up.
Dean's book, as well as the recently published The Nixon Tape by historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, is based on transcripts from the vast collection of recordings made by Nixon from 1971 to 1974.
Going back to the Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, other presidents also made secret recordings of meetings and private discussions. Nixon, who was both brilliant and paranoid, wanted to ensure no detail escaped his attention. And so with help from a few aides and the Secret Service, he installed a voice activated taping system in every possible office and room he spent any time in.
Nixon believed that as president the tapes were his property. The Senate Watergate committee learned about the tapes in the summer of 1974 and demanded Nixon release them. He refused, citing his executive privilege. But in a landmark decision on the power of the executive, the Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling deemed the tapes had to be given to the committee.
More than anything else, the evidence on the tape recordings implicated Nixon in the cover-up. Had the tapes not existed, most historians and political commentators believe Nixon likely would have survived the scandal.
As it was, however, the tapes, all 3,700 hours of conversations, portray Nixon as devious, manipulative, obsessive (especially about John F. Kennedy's legacy) and bigoted. In one discussion transcribed by Brinkley and Nichter, whose book deals with non-Watergate topics, Nixon addresses the issue of homosexuality with his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger and chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman (both of whom do not fare well on the recordings either).
"Let me say something before we get off the gay thing," says Nixon. "I don't want my views misunderstood. I am the most tolerant person... They have a problem. They're born that way... [But] my point is that Boy Scout leaders, YMCA leaders and others bring them in that direction and teachers."
In another conversation, Nixon is aggravated that the State Department issued a statement about the terrible treatment of Soviet Jews. He agrees with Kissinger (who is Jewish) that the treatment, repressive or not, "is none of our business."
The 40th anniversary is sure to revive the debate about Nixon and Watergate, which "has become a synonym for the incomparable abuses of power," as presidential historian Robert Dallek writes. Several other presidents were involved in scandals and two -- Andrew Johnson in the 1860s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s -- had impeachment proceedings brought against them.
Until his death in 1994, Nixon wrote several books on foreign policy and attempted to rewrite his place in history, downplaying Watergate. He was mildly successful and would have been pleased, though likely not surprised, by a recent opinion poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Asked to name the worst president since the end of the Second World War, 33 per cent of those surveyed chose Barack Obama, 28 per cent picked George W. Bush, and Richard Nixon came in third at 13 per cent.
Dallek finds this case of "historical amnesia" troubling since negativity about politicians and government were dramatically reinforced by Nixon's actions. Yet Americans, like Canadians and citizens of other countries, tend to live in the moment and right now, Obama's flaws are a lot more critical than a botched burglary 42 years ago -- no matter what the consequences.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.