Today’s post comes from Emma Rothberg, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. August 8 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.
Early on the morning of June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The aftermath brought the first resignation of a sitting President, a pardon, and a national uproar.
The story of Watergate and the Nixon administration’s involvement has become synonymous with government scandal. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we take a moment to reflect on that period in our history.
Section 4 of Article II of the United States Constitution states, “The President, Vice President, and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Until 1974, Congress had only once attempted to impeach the President—Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the President be impeached. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon decided to resign.
On the night of August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation to the American people live via television and radio. To an anxious public, President Nixon explained, “I have never been a quitter. 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.” He then announced, “I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
The next day, on August 9, 1974, President Nixon sent his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
The story of Nixon’s resignation may have ended there, but on September 8, 1974, newly sworn-in President R. Gerald Ford opened a new chapter when he issued a highly controversial Proclamation Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon.
In the proclamation, President Ford cited the “tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks”—Nixon’s resignation—“could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States.”
Ford wholeheartedly believed that a trial would only bring more division as well as “exposing to further punishment and degradation of a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
Nixon’s letter of resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon are among the holdings of the National Archives. They are on display in the in the East Rotunda Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from August 8 to 11, 2014.
One thought on ““I have never been a quitter . . .””
President Ford was heavily criticized and condemned for his pardon of Nixon, some charging that a deal had been made between Nixon and Ford.
Ford said no deal had been made and even went before the House Judiciary Committee to explain his reasons for the pardon, thus becoming the first sitting President to testify before Congress.
But the deed was done, and the criticism was harsh and widespread and continues to this day. It is generally considered one of the reasons Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
One of those vocal critics of the pardon at the time was Sen. Edward Kennedy, brother of the man who defeated Nixon for the Presidency in 1960.
Fast forward to 2001 at the Kennedy Library in Boston, where Nixon supporters (and Republicans) are few and far between. Kennedy is presenting Ford with the library’s Profile in Courage award, named for John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book, “Profiles in Courage,” about individuals who put conscience above politics in making controversial decisions.
In making the presentation, Kennedy said, “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”
According to the New York Times, Ford said the awards committee had “displayed its own kind of courage” in making the award since the pardon will be a source of disagreement among historians forever.
Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters who co-wrote the first accounts of the Watergate break-in, was also a vocal critic, but wrote years later:
“What at first and perhaps for many years looked like a decision to protect Nixon was instead largely designed to protect the nation. Watergate was a poison that would not go away. . . . The only way out of the Watergate atmosphere was to move fast, to short circuit the process. Preoccupation with Nixonâs fate could have continued for years.”