Five Days in August: What It Was Like to Report Watergate

Certain that Nixon hadn't gotten the message, Bush followed up with a personal note:

It is my considered judgment that you should now resign. I expect in your lonely embattled position this would seem to you as an act of disloyalty from one you have supported and helped in so many ways. My own view is that I would now ill serve a president whose massive accomplishments I will always respect and whose family I love, if I did not now give you my judgment. Until this moment resignation has been no answer at all, but given the impact of the latest development, and it will be a lasting one, I now firmly feel resignation is best for the country, best for this president. I believe this view is held by most Republican leaders across the country. This letter is much more difficult because of the gratitude I will always have for you. If you do leave office history will properly record your achievements with a lasting respect.

By day's end, Nixon's defenses were crumbling. All 10 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against impeachment now agreed the president must go.

 

Wednesday, August 7

Late Wednesday afternoon, as what little political support he had left evaporated, Nixon met with three of his oldest friends from Congress: Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the president's conservative heroes. The meeting lasted only 23 minutes because the leaders carried a simple, nonnegotiable message: If Nixon didn't resign, the House would impeach him; he'd then be tried in the Senate, convicted, and removed from office. If he were lucky, they guessed, 15 of the 100 senators would stick with him.

Goldwater delivered the coup de grace: If it came to that, he told his old friend, he would be among the majority of senators voting to convict. Resignation was now a foregone conclusion.

Newsweek reporter Tom DeFrank works at his desk during the Watergate era. (Courtesy of Tom DeFrank)

 

Thursday, August 8

With Ziegler's noontime Thursday announcement of a primetime presidential speech, the Nixon death watch consumed a White House, city, and nation. Shaken Nixon staffers gamely carried on, struggling to cope with the reality that Nixon was a goner.

One press aide referred to the Nixon family dinner the night before as "the last supper." A dry-eyed West Wing secretary said in a voice scarcely above a whisper: "It's like death. You know it's coming but it doesn't really hit you until after it happens."

One of Nixon's stoutest defenders, who'd been with him since the ill-fated 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, pronounced the valedictory to the tragedy of Richard Nixon.

"When you think," he said, pounding a fist on his desk, "what we could have done with the (second-term) mandate he got in 1972, it really makes you sick to your stomach."

Nixon's final full day as president began with a sleepless night. Between 3:58 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. he spoke twice with Ziegler and four times with speechwriter Ray Price.

At 11 o'clock he met with Jerry Ford, an old friend since their days in the House of Representatives in the late 1940s. For 70 minutes they talked and reminisced. Nixon emphatically urged Ford to keep Henry Kissinger as secretary of State; Ford eagerly concurred.

Nixon walked around his desk, wrapped his left arm around the about-to-be president and wished him well.

"I was surprised about how cool and composed he was," Ford told me in retirement. "It was a warm but ... obviously an emotional meeting. His composure was strong."

At 9:01 p.m. from the Oval Office, Nixon delivered a 15-minute farewell address to the nation, acknowledging his political base had eroded to the point where he couldn't be effective.

"I have never been a quitter," he said. "To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.

"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

Across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Square, thousands of Nixon-haters, Vietnam War protesters, and gawkers had gathered in the enervating humidity to await the inevitable and witness a pivot point in history. At the precise instant Nixon announced his resignation, a shriek of jubilation erupted from the crowd, a roar so loud and guttural that it cascaded across the avenue, North Lawn of the White House, and through the sealed windows of the briefing room. As I watched from a small black-and-white television in the basement, the noise drowned out Nixon's next line: "Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office."

The hair on my arms stood straight up. Forty years later, that happens again without fail each time I repeat the story.

What he termed "the Watergate matter" was mentioned in passing. "I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation," an assertion long ago rejected by a majority of Americans.

It was an eminently presidential performance, measured and statesmanlike, perhaps his finest speech in nearly 30 years as a congressman, senator, vice president, and president.  

 

Friday, August 9

His official farewell had been delivered in a firm, steady voice, absent malice and devoid of emotion. Not so the next morning, when Nixon assembled several hundred friends and staffers in the East Room for a speech so wrenching to watch that even some archenemies admitted a pang of sympathy for a humiliated fellow human struggling to keep from unraveling.

As many in the audience wept openly and he himself almost broke down more than once, Nixon was rambling, disjointed, tortured, awkward, maudlin—and, in his own way, powerful.

Poignantly he paid tribute to his parents; first his father, a failed lemon rancher yet still a "great man" because he did his job despite many travails.

Then, he reminisced, almost breaking down, "My mother was a saint."

How Nixon got through it I'll never know. But somehow he did, at times rising to an eloquence that otherwise eluded him his entire career.

Toward the end, he spoke a line for the ages:

"Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them—and then you destroy yourself."

Noble words, indeed. Yet this was the same guy, I thought at that moment, who kept an "enemies list" of political opponents, railed in private against blacks and Jews, and vowed to unleash the IRS to settle scores with those he was convinced were out to destroy him.

Still, it was arguably Nixon's most memorable moment in public life.

Waiting outside on the South Lawn, Manolo Sanchez, Nixon's faithful Cuban-born valet, was preparing to accompany the boss into exile with his wife Fina, Pat Nixon's assistant. "I decide is my duty to go with this man because I know he's kinda sad," a bewildered Sanchez told me. "I don't believe this thing happen."

Three minutes after his East Room farewell, Nixon and his family joined Jerry and Betty Ford. They walked down a long red carpet between a military honor guard. The wives embraced, their husbands shook hands.

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Tom DeFrank is a contributing editor at National Journal.

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