Nixon's Resignation: 40 Years Later

Arthur Schlesinger, Hunter S. Thompson, Seymour Hersh, Elizabeth Drew, Evan Thomas, and others on the fall of a president and its aftermath, from The Atlantic archives
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AP/Noah Gordon/The Atlantic

On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon sat at his desk in the Oval Office and announced that he was resigning the office of the president. The next day, he submitted his letter of resignation to Henry Kissinger and left for Yorba Linda, California.

In his immediate wake, Nixon left a shattered and confused nation, a host of spurned aides, and an accidental president. The fallout from Watergate stripped the nation of its political innocence, revolutionized executive power, and bequeathed a range of new reforms. It sent a huge new crop of politicians to Washington. It marked the American vocabulary, producing a range of new expressions and one durable naming scheme for scandals. We're still grappling with the scandal today: In every debate about executive power or campaign-finance law or White House press management, Nixon looms in the background, glowering under his perpetually furrowed brow. 

Nixon has been a frequent presence in the pages of The Atlantic over the decades. The archival material retains its ability to shock—an important riposte to the disheartening majority of Americans who today say they believe Watergate was business as usual and little more than a political kerfuffle. Here are a few pieces that show how the magazine covered the 37th president and how understandings of Nixon have changed over the years.

 

Nixonland, Before the Fall

Who was the real Richard Nixon, and how did he come to oversee a vast criminal operation from the Oval Office?

Richard Nixon meets with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office in 1973. (Jim Palmer/AP)

The ink was barely dry on President Gerald Ford's pardon of his predecessor when the author and attorney George V. Higgins—who represented, among others, Watergate Plumber G. Gordon Liddy—penned a jeremiad against Nixon's dishonesty in the November 1974 issue. For Higgins, one clear sign of Nixon's character was the way he treated those around him who trusted and relied on him—right on down to the American people.

Your run-of-the-mill liar, your journeyman perjurer, comes a cropper because he tries too hard to please, and thus, like John Mitchell denying political activity as head of the Committee to ReElect the President, finally delivers himself of a fib so incredible that it reduces the listener to helpless laughter. But the Nixon School of Lying was erected on the premise that people will hear what they want to hear, and all you have to do is give them something, some minimally committing murmur which will seem to deny what they shrink from asserting, some palliating remark which will seem to declare what they find repugnant to deny.

.... The President thought we were all stupid. He fell back upon his inveterate practice of being a tactician when he should have been a philosopher, concerned, to the exclusion of what was right, solely with what would work.

Yet Nixon's downfall wasn't just his dishonesty. It was his paranoia and love for dirty tricks that had gotten Nixon into trouble—after all, the coverup may have been what finally snagged him, but the crimes were egregious and many. A 1982 article, drawn from a book by legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, offered some insight into the rampant paranoia in the White House and the utter lack of moral reservation among the president and his aides about wiretapping, even before the Watergate break-in:

It is only against this background of distrust and intrigue that the earliest group of White House wiretaps can be assessed. The first man to be wiretapped was Halperin, whose home telephone was under surveillance shortly after 6 P.M. on the evening of May 9, three days before Attorney General Mitchell formally signed the FBI authorization for the tap. Three other wiretaps—on Dan Davidson, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, and Bob Pursley—were installed on May 12 .... On May 20, NSC staff members Richard Sneider and Dick Moose, the former Fulbright aide, were wiretapped. The next stage was to begin wiretapping newsmen. By September, Kissinger and Haig had forwarded the names of three—Henry Brandon, of The London Sunday Times, Marvin Kalb, of CBS News, and Hedrick Smith, ofThe New York Times—to the FBI.

There were, of course, few saints in the saga. Even the "good guys" like White House counsel John Dean were implicated in misdeeds. And just because Nixon was paranoid didn't mean someone wasn't out to get him. In 2002, James Rosen recounted how the president discovered in 1971 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had in fact been spying on Nixon, too. Characteristically, it sent him into a fit of rage and recrimination; just as characteristically, he demonstrated the creativity, resilience, and cunning that allowed him to make a series of unlikely comebacks throughout his career, including one final one after his resignation—but more on that later.

Nixon was stunned by Radford's revelations. He pounded his desk in anger. He spoke gravely about prosecuting Admiral Moorer, along with others involved .... Nixon pronounced Kissinger, his national-security adviser, a threat to security. And yet within days he had developed a strategy for handling the affair that not only averted a major public crisis—which is where most Presidents would have been content to stop—but also skillfully salvaged advantage from misfortune and furthered his personal and political agendas.

Reviewing historian Rick Perlstein's Nixonland in 2008, Ross Douthat argued that the context for Nixon's rise and fall was misunderstood—it's not that Nixon was an unusual stroke of bad luck for the country. In fact, despite his sins, he might have been the best the nation could hope for at that moment, a far better alternative to the sort of outright national collapse that might have followed if his competitors had won.

Voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconserva­tive or neoliberal FDR .... They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand—nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland than figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller—and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss. Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principles at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous.

Evan Thomas, reviewing a pair of new books on Nixon published to mark the anniversary of the resignation, also notes the president's command. From the distance of 40 years, Nixon looks like a Herblock caricature, but listening to the tapes today shows his full range of emotions and his mastery of policy.

The Nixon who emerges from Luke Nichter and Doug Brinkley’s massive (700-plus pages) The Nixon Tapes ... is at times profane and raw ... He shows the typical prejudices of his generation against gays. But there is no doubt that he is in charge—ruthlessly so, exploiting rivalries between his aides. He seems to delight in secrecy and in playing the great game of power diplomacy, even when he is frustrated by the Russians, Chinese, and North Vietnamese, as well as America’s allies. It’s not always clear where Nixon is going—he vents, rages, tries on bluffs and provocations—but he, and not Kissinger, is calling the shots.

 

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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