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Remembering The Emotional Fallout From Nixon's Resignation


Forty years ago today, the president of the United States announced that he was resigning.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort.

GREENE: That long and difficult period Richard Nixon referred to began with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June of 1972. The next year, a Senate committee held lengthy hearings into the break-in and the White House effort to cover up the crime. The House Judiciary Committee went next, actually considering impeachment. And then in late July of 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court turned up the heat, ruling that the White House had to turn over secret Oval Office tape recordings. We want to bring in one of the young reporters who covered the months and days leading up to the president's resignation. It's none other than our colleague Linda Wertheimer, a very familiar voice on this program. Linda, welcome.


Thank you very much, David.

GREENE: So after that Supreme Court decision turned up the heat and before the resignation, it sounds like things were moving so quickly in Washington. What did the city feel like?

WERTHEIMER: When I think back on - you know - on Watergate in general and hearings and the house, especially, what I remember is not, you know, the specific facts of the event or the, you know - when this happened and then that happened - what I remember are the people and how terribly emotional they were, how frightened they were, how wrung out they were. One of the things we count on in the American democracy is that we have an orderly transition of power. The possibility that we might not was terrifying.

GREENE: People are actually questioning the system, wondering whether it would hold up here.

WERTHEIMER: Right. The day that the Supreme Court changed the game by releasing those tapes for the trials - the Watergate trials - I went to talk to Tip O'Neill. He was the majority leader of the House at the time.


WERTHEIMER: Well, now, the committee proceedings is like a train that's leaving on time, and it's supposed to arrive at a decision on Saturday evening or sometime Monday. Now, what is going to happen according to your reading of the house?

TIP O'NEILL: Well, I have to presume, at this particular time, that the president of the United States is going to be impeached by the judiciary committee. Somewhere between five and nine Republicans could very well vote for impeachment. There are those that say that all of the Democrats will vote for impeachment, and that gives a margin of almost 2-to-1. In view of that, I would say that only a miracle can save the president of the United States from being impeached by the Congress.

WERTHEIMER: He hadn't said that until that moment. The very next day, a member of the House Judiciary Committee made an impassioned speech calling for impeachment. And it was Barbara Jordan. She was a Democrat from Texas - the first black woman ever elected from, you know, a Confederate state. She was like - it was like hearing the voice of God if God were a woman to hear Barbara Jordan speak when she got really wound up. And we have that tape.


BARBARA JORDAN: The president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard secrecy of grand jury proceedings, attempt to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.

GREENE: I can see why you'd remember that voice.

WERTHEIMER: Yes. That was Thursday. And by Saturday, the House Judiciary Committee had adopted the first article of impeachment which charged President Nixon with obstruction of the investigation of the Watergate break-in, and they went to the vote.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 1: Mr. Froelich.






WERTHEIMER: That was Peter Rodino of New Jersey. He was the chairman of the committee, and he voted last. You could hear that his voice was just cracking.


WERTHEIMER: Peter Rodino was in tears. And he wasn't the only one. I mean, there were people sitting around the room. There were staff people, other members of Congress, members of the past, who were crying because this was such a dramatic moment and they were frightened by what they were doing and couldn't see any way not to do it.

GREENE: The following week on Monday, the White House releases the transcripts of three conversations between President Nixon and his aide Bob Haldeman. And this came to be known as the famous smoking gun because it revealed that Nixon had ordered the FBI to stop investigating the break-in. So rather than face impeachment by the full House and removal from office by the Senate, Richard Nixon announces his resignation. That was August 8, 1974.


NIXON: 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 interests of America first. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.

GREENE: I bet you know exactly where you were when you were listening to those words.

WERTHEIMER: Actually, I was at the Capitol in the Radio and Television Gallery where we had, you know, a microphone set up.

GREENE: Broadcasting from there on the show.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. And I listened as we had this amazing broadcast. I think it was one of the very first national call-in programs that was ever attempted.

MARGARET COMBS: I'm from Baltimore, Maryland, and my name is Margaret Combs (PH). I am a registered Democrat. However, I hope I'm sensible enough to say that I'm sorry for Mr. Nixon because I feel that...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 2: We're talking with Roger Maloy (PH) from Minneapolis. Mr. Maloy (PH), what are your thoughts on this day?

ROGER MALOY: I think this is good for the American people. What Gerald Ford has going for him is the fact he does have the support of the Congress, and I think that there's going be a lot of people that will probably get behind him to make all of this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 2: Good evening. Where are you calling from, please?

ELMER FREY: Gaithersburg, Maryland.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 2: And may we have your name, please?

FREY: Yes, Elmer Frey (PH). I comment on a remark I heard earlier that it was a very sad day. However, it is also a very auspicious day. It represents the fact that the American system works - that one can, by democratic process, remove the most powerful man in the country from his office when he has...

WERTHEIMER: There were these people that are our listeners, talking to us from around the country, and I was so comforted by them.

GREENE: What comforted you?

WERTHEIMER: I just can't tell you how amazing they were. They were philosophical. The talked about how we - we've gone through difficult times before. We will get through this. It was basically saying we - we can handle it. And I was - I was so proud. And I remember feeling - OK, we're going to be OK. And I really had not felt that for a long time.

GREENE: Linda, thanks for coming in and talking about these memory.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you.

GREENE: Our own Linda Wertheimer, who covered President Nixon's resignation for this network 40 years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.