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

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.

The Crime and the Coverup

On June 17, 1972, a group of burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex, but it took more than two years before the scandal forced Nixon from office. 

Long before it was clear Nixon would fall, in November 1973, the historian and former Kennedy Aide Arthur Schlesinger laid out why Nixon's misdeeds were unique, and why they would eventually require his removal:

The presidency has been in crisis before; but the constitutional offense that led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was trivial compared to the charges now accumulating around the Nixon Administration. There are, indeed, constitutional offenses here [but] .... what is unique in the history of the presidency is the long list of potential criminal charges against the Nixon Administration.

A defiant Nixon at a March 1973 news conference
(Charles Tasnadi/AP)

The implications of that fact were stark. "For the first time in a century, Americans in the 1970s have to think hard about impeachment, which means that, because most of us flinch from the prospect, we begin to think hard about alternatives to impeachment," Schlesinger wrote, but concluded that all of the potential alternatives had even more fatal flaws. Though impeachment was ultimately avoided by Nixon's resignation, Schlesinger's point proved prescient.

f course, we might never have known about much of Watergate if not for whistleblowers who revealed the White House's behavior. But who was "Deep Throat," and was he a hero or a morally compromised striver, out to help himself? The secret informant who encouraged Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to dig into the burglary by tracing campaign cash was the subject of much speculation until Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI, revealed himself in 2005.

In 1992, James Mann showed that the FBI and the Nixon White House had been clashing since the president appointed an outsider to succeed long-time director J. Edgar Hoover. That, Mann wrote, is why an FBI insider would have seen fit to leak to Woodward. But who would that have been? While Mann mentioned Felt repeatedly—he was first on a list of possibilities—he didn't pin it on him definitively.

There has been considerable speculation that Deep Throat never existed, that he must have been either a complete fiction or a composite of several people. My memory of those early months of Watergate is otherwise: that there was a specific individual, from the FBI, and Woodward had special access to him.

In March 1974, a group known as the Watergate Seven were arraigned for their involvement in trying to undermine the Watergate investigation. Several—including three of Nixon's most senior aides, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General John Mitchell—were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. The trials made a national hero of federal Judge John Sirica. Looking back on the trials with new archival evidence on the 39th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, in 2013, Geoff Shepard, who was a young attorney on the president's defense team, charged Sirica with ethical violations.

It is true that we failed spectacularly. Of course, I’m disappointed we weren’t more successful. But whether the defendants were innocent or guilty, I’ve always worried on a more basic level that the heightened emotions of the times denied them the due process of law envisioned by our Constitution.

Atlantic contributing editor Andrew Cohen replied, saying that while Sirica's meetings with prosecutors were unwise, they did little to taint the verdicts.

The Aftermath
Nixon boards the Marine One helicopter for the last time.

It may have been true, as Gerald Ford said at his inauguration, that the "long national nightmare" was over, but Nixon wasn't gone.

Just as the press had been sure in 1962 that they wouldn't have Nixon to kick around anymore, the American people imagined they were rid of the man when he left for California. Nixon, never a quitter, had other plans. In an excerpt from a new edition of her book on Watergate, former Atlantic Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew reported earlier this year on Nixon's post-presidential plan:

Determined and methodical as usual, with the help of aides who had gone with him to San Clemente at government expense, Nixon made a plan. This secret plan, codenamed Wizard, was one to regain respectability. He would show ’em again. What would have crushed most people to Richard Nixon was another crisis to be overcome.

Incredibly, Drew notes, Nixon was largely successful: Through force of will, blackmail, and a certain something—not quite charm, this being Nixon—he ended his life as a respected foreign-policy mandarin, a wise old man and confidant of presidents.

That rehabilitation, limited as it was, might have been impossible without a pardon. The propriety of Gerald Ford's decision remains a subject of fierce disagreement today. But the question is not just whether Ford should have pardoned Nixon, but why he did so. The men were not close, as Seymour Hersh reported in 1983: "Nixon had reservations about Ford's abilities, Colson says; after Ford's confirmation, the President once described him to Colson as his 'insurance policy' against impeachment." In an finely detailed tick-tock of the pardon, starting from Ford's appointment to the vice-presidency, Hersh sought to determine what happened. His final judgment was harsh:

Richard Nixon, with his continued efforts to influence the White House through the good offices of Alexander Haig, demonstrated that his fall from power had taught him little. And Gerald Ford, by putting self-interest and political loyalty to a benefactor above his duty, did not give the American legal system a chance to work. The transfer of power in August of 1974 was not a triumph for democracy.

Harsher, and more colorful, was Hunter S. Thompson's obituary for Nixon, "He Was a Crook," which originally ran in Rolling Stone and was later republished in The Atlantic. (For more Thompson on Nixon, read his long interview with the magazine in 1997.) Thompson and Nixon had been linked for decades, perhaps most memorably in the incredible story of the two men chewing the fat about football during the 1968 campaign. The obituary is trademark Thompson: funny and irreverent and angry and touching and manic.

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

On one hand, Thompson wrote, "It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely." On the other, "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles."

* * *

For those who lived through it, Watergate remains a nightmare, more or less vividly remembered—the details gets fuzzy, the exact sequence is obscure, but the fear is just as real. (Just notice Woodward and Bernstein's conflicting recollections, in Politico Playbook, of what they ate while watching Nixon's resignation speech.) For those who are younger, the saga seems hard to grasp, a little slapstick, a little scary, hardly believable.

Schlesinger's 1973 essay speaks to both groups from the distance of 41 years. For the battle-scarred survivors, it's worth recalling the good that came out of the horror. "Watergate is potentially the best thing to have happened to the presidency in a long time," Schlesinger wrote. "If the trails are followed to their end, many, many years will pass before another White House staff dares take the liberties with the Constitution and the laws the Nixon White House has taken." And for those who believe it couldn't happen again, not here, Schlesinger offers caution.

Corruption appears to visit the White House in fifty-year cycles. This suggests that exposure and retribution inoculate the presidency against its latent criminal impulses for about half a century. Around the year 2023 the American people will be well advised to go on the alert and start nailing down everything in sight.

We all might be wise to mark our calendars.