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President Nixon Leaves the White House 1974
The downfall of Richard Nixon's presidency was triggered by the actions of an alert watchman on the night of June 17, 1972. On duty at the Watergate office complex in downtown Washington, DC, the watchman discovered tape covering the lock of an office door. Police were summoned and caught five men in the process of pillaging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. It was an election year. The raid's mission was to gather political intelligence that would aid President Nixon in his bid to continue in office. As the investigation of the break-in broadened, it revealed a pattern of unlawful activity within the Nixon presidency that collectively became known as "Watergate" and ultimately forced his resignation two years later.

The trial of the Watergate burglars began in early February 1973. In addition to the five men caught in the act, their managers - G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord were also indicted. The burglars pled guilty while their managers were convicted after three weeks of testimony.

A few days after the trial, the Senate voted unanimously to establish a committee to investigate the scandal. The Senate Watergate Committee began its nationally televised hearings on May 17, 1973. Witnesses were called and testimony given before a live, national audience. In a separate action, a day after the Senate began its hearings, Archibald Cox was appointed by the nation's Attorney General as Special Prosecutor to investigate the scandal. Events now took a course of their own.

The bombshell that destroyed Nixon's presidency exploded in testimony before the Senate committee on July 16, 1973. When asked, Secret Service agent Alexander Butterfield confirmed that conversations in the president's offices were routinely and secretly tape recorded. The availability of an audio record of White House discussions was revealed.

The Special Prosecutor immediately subpoenaed the tapes of nine presidential meetings. Citing executive privilege, President Nixon refused to release them. The dispute was taken to the Federal Court system for a resolution and finally made its way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Congress began impeachment action.

On July 24, 1974 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon must release the tapes. Within a week, the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment. On August 8, the president informed the nation in a televised address that he would resign his office effective the next day. Vice President Gerald Ford would succeed him as president.

"President Nixon looked just awful."

President Nixon awoke at 7 AM on his final day in office after a fitful night. Following a light breakfast, he signed his one-sentence letter of resignation and said goodbye to his house staff. Shortly after 9 AM he entered the East Room and made a brief farewell address to an overflow crowd of White House staff and Cabinet members. He then joined Vice President (now President) Ford for a walk across the South Lawn to a helicopter that would whisk him into history. George Bush (later Vice President and then President) was the Chairman of the Republican Party. He attended Nixon's farewell address and kept a diary of the experience:

"August 9, 1974

There is no way to really describe the emotion of the day. Bar [Bush’s wife, Barbara] and I went down and had breakfast at the White House. Dean and Pat Burch and the Buchanans were there in the Conference Mess. There was an aura of sadness, like somebody died. Grief. Saw Tricia and Eddie Cox [President Nixon's daughter and her husband] in the Rose Garden – talked to them on the way to the ceremony.

President Nixon looked just awful. He used glasses – the first time I ever saw them. Close to breaking down – understandably. Everyone in the room in tears.

The speech was vintage Nixon – a kick or two at the press – enormous strains. One couldn’t help but look at the family and the whole thing and think of his accomplishments and then think of the shame and wonder kind of man is this really. No morality – kicking his friends in those tapes – all of them. Gratuitous abuse. Caring for no one yet doing so much. When he used the word ‘plumbers’ [in his speech] meaning it [as] ‘laboring with his hands’, the connotation was a shock to me.

I remember Lt. Col. Brennan who has been with him so long – Marine – standing proudly, but with tears running down his face. Rabbi Korff, a brand new friend on the scene who told Kendall he wanted to start a Support for Ford Committee. Thrilled with the limelight. Coming in and standing around and looking for special attention, ending up sitting next to the Cabinet. People who have labored next to Nixon’s side forever are not invited. It’s weird.

The Nixon speech was masterful. In spite of his inability to totally resist a dig at the press, that argument about hating – only if you hate do you join the haters

We walked through the bottom lobby to go out. After the Ford swearing-in, many of the pictures were changed with a great emphasis on the new President. We went over and hung around waiting for the swearing in of Ford.

And then the whole mood changed. It was quiet, respectful, sorrowful, but in one sense, upbeat. The music and the band seemed cheerier, the talking and babbling of voices after Ford’s fantastic speech, crowds of friends, indeed a new spirit, a new lift. I walked through the line and the President was warm and friendly, kissing the wives, telling Bar he appreciated my job, and on and on. It was much more relaxed. There of course were a lot of people that didn’t know what they were going to do. There was great turmoil in that sense.

I went back to the National Committee and addressed them. I tired to identify with the feelings I am sure they all felt – of betrayal and distrust and yet pride. I told them we had been through the toughest year and a half in history and yet I now felt we were coming on an optimistic period. I told them that the President asked me to stay on. All in all it was a pretty good meeting although I felt drained emotionally and tired."

   This account is part of the collection of the National Archives, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum; White, Theodore H., Breach of Faith: the fall of Richard Nixon (1975); Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl, The Final Days (1976).

How To Cite This Article:
"President Nixon Leaves the White House 1974," EyeWitness to History, (2007).