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Politicians come and go, but rule of law endures

The 30th anniversary of Nixon's resignation from office is important as a reminder that although politicians may come and go, the rule of law endures. NBC News Tom Brokaw, the White House correspondent during the Watergate crisis, recollects on lessons learned from the saga.
Nixon bids farewell to his cabinet and members of the White House staff, Aug. 9, 1974.
Nixon bids farewell to his cabinet and members of the White House staff, Aug. 9, 1974.National Archives
/ Source: NBC News

These are tumultuous times in America. We're at war against terrorism and in Iraq. The nation is deeply divided over those issues and the coming presidential election.

Many people wonder whether they can believe what they're being told by their government. Who can blame citizens who are deeply worried about this country's ability to work its way through these crises?

To those who are so worried, let me remind you of another time, just 30 years ago when the United States faced a constitutional crisis of the first order and not only survived, but emerged with a renewed self confidence and a renewed appreciation for the rule of law upheld by good men and women willing to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.

August ’74 – crisis comes to a head
In the opening days of August, 1974, the Watergate crisis was coming to a head. Articles of impeachment against President Nixon had been approved by even Republican members of the House.

Nixon and what was left of his White House palace guard were desperately trying to find a way outof facing a Senate trial, but their options were running out.

Then, the fateful blow: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Oval Office secret recordings that related to Watergate were not protected by executive privilege. They would have to be made public.

When they were, Nixon's defense that he was unaware of the actions of his aides was shattered.

He could be heard on the tapes instructing H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, then his chief of staff, to instruct the CIA to intervene in the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglary as a matter of national security. It was a blatant and outrageous abuse of power and the public could no longer be manipulated.

I was the White House correspondent for NBC News at the time and I well remember the tense, funereal mood in the White House. The end was near. Staffers spoke in hushed tones. Even the press corps was unusually well behaved.

The end nears
On Aug. 7, I received a call from a prominent Republican senator saying that he and a few others in the GOP leadership were letting the president know he had no recourse but to resign.

On Aug. 8, we were told in the press room that the president would be meeting with Vice President Gerald Ford around noon and planned to address the nation that night.

Crowds were beginning to gather in Lafayette Park across from the White House and there were rumors Nixon would go on television to announce he was staying.

One Democratic senator even called me to say he'd heard Nixon had ordered tanks to circle the White House.

Instead, Nixon went on television that night and announced he would resign the presidency at noon the next day, adding, "I hope I have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America."

Rule of law endures
The following day in the East Room of the White House I stood at the back of the room as Nixon, surrounded by his family, said a teary, meandering farewell to his staff. By then his loyal aides were exhausted and ready to move on.

As Nixon and his wife Patricia were accompanied by Gerald and Betty Ford to the helicopter for the beginning of the flight to exile in California, one of the former president's most trusted aides said to me, "Time to go fishing."

I hope he did.

The rest of America resumed its life and business under a new president. The republic proved again its resilience and its greatest strength. It is a nation of laws and a nation of people who put their faith in them. Politicians come and go but the rule of law endures.