Watergate Aniversary

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(Host) Thirty years ago August 9th, President Richard Nixon resigned. It was an unprecedented event in American history, and the culmination of an event-filled summer. Commentator Peter Gilbert remembers:

(Gilbert) Shortly after 9 pm on a lovely summer evening, I heard stereo speakers blare the Halleluiah Chorus out a college dormitory window. President Nixon had just announced that he would resign the presidency, effective at noon the next day.

What a summer it had been! Each day brought stunning developments in the numerous plot lines referred to collectively as “Watergate.” Some of the news related, of course, to the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building and the subsequent cover-up.

Others related to the many dirty tricks perpetrated by the White House “plumbers” – so-called because they were created initially due to Nixon’s obsession with stopping leaks to the press; there was news every day of hush money, interfering with investigations, illegal wire taps and campaign contributions; numerous incidents of obstruction of justice and perjury, and that eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap on the crucial Oval Office tape – apparently created deliberately, but by whom?

For months people read the paper and watched the evening news – every day. Multiple trials and hearings riveted our attention all summer: the House Judiciary Committee, Sam Ervin’s Senate Committee, the federal district court rooms of Judges John Sirica and Gerhard Gesell, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the president must turn over the tapes. What happens if the president defies the Supreme Court? All summer long, one shoe would drop, then another, and another – enough shoes dropped to outfit an army.

The day after his announcement, August 9, 1974, President Nixon made a remarkable, deeply personal farewell speech to White House staff. It included this excellent – but tragically ironic – advice: “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.”

Then, incongruously waving his trademark V for victory, he boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn, and headed west – to California.

At 11:35 A.M., while he was still airborne, his letter of resignation was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It said simply, “Dear Mr. Secretary: I hereby resign the office of the President of the United States. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.” The moment Kissinger received that letter, Gerald Ford became President. Ford hadn’t even been elected Vice President; he’d been appointed to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in disgrace due to income tax evasion.

At noon, President Ford was formally sworn into office. He told the nation, “…our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.” That is, of course, the on-going challenge of a constitutional democracy. For the people to rule, they must be informed and active.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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