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

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.

"Dick, I'm sorry about this, you did a good job." Ford said. "Good luck, Jerry," the 37th president replied.

He briskly walked up Army One's ramp, turning for a magisterial wave to thunderous applause. Then, almost as an afterthought, he snapped off that final defiant gesture his liberal adversaries hated most: the double V-for-victory salute.

From his cabin, Nixon stared at the red carpet being rolled up, another metaphor of decline. The helicopter lifted slowly, banked to starboard toward the Jefferson Memorial, then turned left for the short hop to Andrews Air Force Base and exile to his La Casa Pacifica retreat in San Clemente, Calif.

Walking back to the press room to file a pool report, I happened upon a riveting image: the head of Nixon's security detail staring at the vanishing helo, tears streaming down both cheeks.

"I totally lost it," Dick Keiser told me years later over lunch. "I couldn't help it. We're all trained to react without emotion, to take a bullet for a guy no matter what we think of him personally. But after all he'd been through, you just couldn't help feeling bad for him."

Keiser is now a hale 80, long retired from the Secret Service, but the memories of that moment on the South Lawn endure. "You're willing to literally spend your life protecting someone," he remembered last week, "and all of a sudden watching them suffer the greatest hurt of their life and you can't do anything about it—I was helpless. It was very emotional for me."

Three minutes past noon, Jerry Ford was sworn in as the 38th president—on the same East Room platform where Nixon said his farewells two hours earlier. Technically, he was already president; Nixon's one-sentence resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was received at 11:35.

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Tom DeFrank is a contributing editor at National Journal.

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