"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.
Ford had graciously set aside prime seats for many of Nixon's senior aides. I still remember Al Haig patting a grim-faced Rosemary Woods on the arm, trying to assure Nixon's most dedicated, loyal-to-a-fault personal assistant that time would heal her grief. Woods wasn't buying it; she stared wordlessly straight ahead at the podium where her beloved boss had still been leader of the free world just that morning.
"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," Ford reassured. "Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."
When he asked the country to pray for Nixon, Ford's voice quavered and his eyes misted: "May our former president, who brought peace to millions, find it for himself."
It had been a remarkable 24 hours of triumph and tragedy—triumph for democracy's resilience and the rule of law, tragedy for a man and a president.
Leaving the White House hours later that monumental Friday, I unexpectedly came upon one last bit of drama, a hopeful omen that Nixon's leaving may have finally begun a healing process the country so desperately craved.
For weeks, a determined band of protesters on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue had waved banners urging motorists to "honk if you think he's guilty." My enduring memory of that momentous summer was entering and leaving the White House serenaded by a cacophony of horns. The honking went on for hours day after day, well into the night.
Now, with one president abruptly gone and his successor pledging to "bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than any foreign wars," the horns at last were silent.