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

The three 1972 conversations between Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman demolished Nixon's contention that he was merely the innocent victim of overzealous subordinates. They showed convincingly that Nixon had been deeply involved. In fact, one of them revealed he was conspiring to cover up the break-in six days after it happened—nine months before he claimed he first learned of the incident.

The incriminating transcripts not only sealed Nixon's fate, they coined a new phrase in the American political lexicon: "the smoking gun."

I called my boss, Newsweek's legendary bureau chief Mel Elfin, and read him what we liked to call the "nut graf" from each of the tapes. Mel had impeccable political instincts, but this was a no-brainer. "It's over," he said. "You're about to cover the biggest story of your life." 

Reporters swarm Republican congressional leaders at the White House after their meeting with President Nixon on the afternoon of August 7, 1974. (Official White House Photo by William Fitz-Patrick)

 

Tuesday, August 6

After a 10-minute haircut in the basement barber shop, Nixon walked upstairs for an emergency Cabinet meeting. For 88 minutes, he led the conversation as if the business of government were paramount on his mind. He began by saying he wanted to talk about the most important problem facing the country—inflation.

At some point he brought up the Watergate crisis, dissecting the mess for about 25 minutes. Yes, he acknowledged, he'd made some mistakes; these were difficult times for him and his family, but he intended to soldier on and let "the constitutional process" go forward.

The delusional quality of the meeting was jerked back to reality when George H.W. Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, politely suggested it was time for Nixon to resign. Several participants later reported that Nixon kept talking, ignoring Bush's recommendation as though it had never been uttered.

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."

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Tom DeFrank is a contributing editor at National Journal.

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