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The unraveling of a presidency

The summer of 1974 saw the climax of the national drama that was Watergate.  Thirty years later, Nixon insiders and critics alike look back at the events that shaped that time. MSNBC's Nick Kovijanic reports.
A crowd celebrating Nixon's resignationhold "Wanted Conviction of Richard Nixon" and "No Amnesty for Nixon" signs outside the gates of the White House.
A crowd celebrating Nixon's resignationhold "Wanted Conviction of Richard Nixon" and "No Amnesty for Nixon" signs outside the gates of the White House.Owen Franken / Corbis
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In the gathering dusk of Aug. 8, 1974, crowds filled the square across from the White House. They awaited word on the fate of the nation's 37th president. Some carried placards suggesting their position on the matter. Others wore their emotions openly.

"I remember going to Lafayette Park [that night]. There were crowds, thousands of people there," said Hugh Sidey, longtime White House correspondent for Time & Life. "They were divided. Some were crying, some were laughing. It was an unsettled feeling."

It had been an especially bruising few months for Richard Nixon. In the 2-year war that became known as "Watergate," Nixon had lost the final real battle just weeks earlier.

In an 8-to-0 decision, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to relinquish Oval Office tapes he'd made in hopes of preserving history. No one could know those very tapes would doom his presidency.
Nixon's grip on power and the faith of those he served had weakened steadily over the prior year, then precipitously in those final weeks.

The summer of '74                       
"It was a gut-wrenching summer," said Sidey. "I felt on edge all the time. Not just as a journalist. It was a concern for the country."                                                             

Inside the White House, there was similar gloom. "The mood of the staff was one of resignation -- a sense of inevitability," said Pat Buchanan, a Nixon advisor and speechwriter. "We knew by the final week we were witnessing the death of a presidency."

Against this backdrop -- the eyes of a nation on him, crowds outside his door, lights, cameras, reporters on the White House grounds -- Nixon answered the call of history.

"I am not a quitter," he told his fellow countrymen on national television. "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."
Nixon officially quit his fight the next day at noon on Aug. 9, 1974 -- the only president in U.S. history to do so.
"By the time he had resigned he had virtually no support, even among his loyalists," said Melvin Small, historian and author of "The Presidency of Richard Nixon.”               

Events that spiraled    
That long and inexorable path to the resignation of a president began in the small hours of June 17, 1972.

By now, the events surrounding the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex that early Saturday morning are well documented. The Washington Post's front page headline of June 18, 1972 read: "5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats' Office Here.”

Those captured wore suits and rubber surgical gloves, carried fresh $100 bills, electronic bugging devices and cameras. In a matter of days, the burglars -- their intent not yet fully understood -- were linked to the Committee to Re-elect the President, Nixon's 1972 campaign organization.

And in the weeks and months immediately after, as Watergate seeped into the nation's consciousness, every new facet, every fresh bit of intrigue moved the story closer to the White House and the Oval Office.
"Watergate came out of a break-in that Richard Nixon did not order," said Buchanan. But “within a matter of hours, the perpetrators of Watergate came running to the White House” for help.
The call for help would draw in Nixon's two top advisors: H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, as well as the President.                       

By now, we also know what followed: the cover-up,  payments of hush money to the burglars, and efforts to thwart an FBI investigation that doomed Nixon.
"I used to believe the President knew about the break-in [beforehand]," said Sidey. "But now, I'm not so sure anymore." Perhaps, Sidey said, Nixon gave his tacit consent.

Either way, he said, "it was totally unnecessary" for Nixon's re-election hopes, which made the events of June 17, 1972 all the more puzzling.

Landslide victory and then the backslide
Nixon won the last election of his political career in 1972 by an astounding margin -- an electoral and popular landslide. He won 49 states and more than 60 percent of the vote -- a mandate by anyone's standards. An affirmation of Nixon's politics and policies.

"If not personally popular, Nixon's administration was popular," said Small.
Still even then, nothing could shake Watergate. "He would have won by a larger margin without Watergate," said Buchanan.
But the euphoria of election night would fade and history would make an abrupt segue for Richard Nixon. 

From the start of Nixon's second term in January 1973, Watergate absorbed his time, energies, and  effectively - his presidency.      

"In the second administration, he's spending significant amounts of time on Watergate," said Small. "His poll numbers are going down, he's becoming more erratic in his behavior."

Sidey had a similar view. "It was a despicable time of lying and cover-up," he said. "Nixon was kind of out of it in some ways. (Ron) Ziegler [Nixon's press secretary] was saying it was business as usual." But the media and congress knew different, said Sidey.

And in February of 1973, the U.S. Senate stepped in, establishing the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Starting in May, those hearings would be televised, bumping soap operas from their usual time slots for the authentic, historical drama playing out in Washington, D.C.

"Once it got into the committee structure, I thought he [Nixon] was dead, unless he offered even half an apology," said Sidey. "When the gears mesh in that sort of thing you can't stop them."

Along that road to resignation, Richard Nixon had to shed his most trusted advisors -- Haldeman and Ehrlichman. 

On April 30, in a national address, Nixon announced their resignations, took full responsibility for the Watergate scandal, and promised the investigation would continue and the truth would come out. "There can be no whitewash at the White House," Nixon said.

In Richard Reeves's book, "President Nixon: Alone in the White House,” he recounted what happened earlier that day, just after Nixon had asked for Haldeman and Ehrlichman's resignations.

Press secretary Ron Ziegler found the President alone in Aspen Lodge at Camp David: "The lights were off and the President stood framed in the window, looking out over the mountains.... He turned (to Ziegler) and said, 'It's all over, Ron, do you know that?' Ziegler knew he meant his presidency. Nixon sat down and cried."

Even after the departure of his most trusted advisors, it would be more than a year and three months before Nixon's resignation.

Tapes preserved legacy -- like it or not
Nixon's fate would come down to the Oval Office audio tapes he kept as a sort of daily diary. He hoped they would preserve his legacy. Instead, they ended his presidency.

During the Senate hearings in July of 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide, revealed the existence of the automated taping system. The fight to keep those tapes private consumed the last year of Nixon's presidency and, for him, culminated in that cruel summer of 1974.

"I recommended that Nixon destroy the tapes in a memo to the White House" after Butterfield's testimony, said Buchanan.“So did John Connally," referring to the former Treasury Secretary under Nixon.

“You would have had a one-day, two-day, three-day firestorm, then it would have been over. If Nixon had simply gotten rid of the tapes and told the truth, he would have survived,” continued Buchanan.

Nixon did not destroy the tapes. And on July 24, 1974 the Supreme Court dealt what would be the fatal blow to the Nixon presidency, forcing him to relinquish the tapes.
They revealed what to this day is called "the smoking gun," direct evidence of Nixon's efforts to cover-up facts surrounding the Watergate break-in.
"If he had destroyed the tapes, several of his aides said they would have gone public," said Small. But “I think he would not have been impeached. It would have been a lot harder. I see his presidency being crippled, but he would not have been impeached." 

Nixon resigned before the House ever took an impeachment vote.

Finally, resignation
Thirty years since Nixon's resignation the whole Watergate affair is still given to different interpretations.

"It's curious to me," said Lou Cannon, a Washington Post reporter during the Nixon years. "Most people would have thought it would have been settled by now. But Nixon's partisans and detractors are still fighting over it. Contrary to a lot of beliefs, there wasn't a feeling of jubilation when Nixon resigned.”

“Most of us at the Post were pleased the Woodward and Bernstein stories had been vindicated. But having a president resign in disgrace was not a good experience for the country. I couldn't believe it was happening. I didn't feel good about it and I don't think I was alone," said Cannon.
Buchanan said there's more to the Watergate saga. "Nixon was in the middle of a hostile city, filled with New Deal Democrats," he said. "It was an effort to destroy him. Nixon gave them a sword and they ran it right through him."
The final days and the resignation reminded Sidey of something Lyndon Johnson had said. "The presidency is a person. That's so true at the heart of it," he said.     

"The lesson of Watergate?" Buchanan asked. "Once something like this occurs, lay the facts out to the American people. Admit you made a mistake. Tell them, 'Now you be the judge. We're moving on.’"

Nixon legacy
Watergate and Nixon's resignation have faded over the years - the 37th president's legacy enhanced by time.
"It's never going to become a blip," said Cannon. But “it certainly isn't as important now as it was 30 years ago."
Among other presidents, where does Nixon rank today? "When you factor in Watergate, he's in the middle of the pack," said Small. "If you ignored Watergate, and looked at his accomplishments, he would be ranked much higher."
Even those inside the White House during the Nixon years give him mixed reviews. "Nixon's first term was near-great. His second was clearly a failure. Watergate destroyed his presidency," said Buchanan.
In the years following his resignation, Nixon sought to restore and enhance his legacy.

In fact, one day, Richard Nixon would call Hugh Sidey and invite him to lunch. In his role as elder statesman, Nixon wanted to talk foreign policy.
They met at the former president's town house in Park Ridge, New Jersey. Did Watergate or resignation come up?  "It came up, sure," said Sidey. "But he didn't want to dwell on it. He did say all of it came about because of bad judgment."

The last day   
Back to Aug. 9, 1974 and high noon. Richard Milhaus Nixon's long life of public service would finish with a short walk on the White House lawn to an awaiting helicopter. It would lift him forever from the path he first started on in 1946, the year he won a seat in Congress. 

When he reached the top step, Nixon turned and waved, the last image of a presidency prematurely ended.

Earlier that morning, Nixon offered some parting thoughts to the White House staff he would leave behind.
"We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."