I was dumping papers into a bin at the public recycling center in Anchorage, Alaska, when I spied a faded Life magazine promising the photos of 1974. On the cover, Trish and Pat Nixon looked prayerful and Patty Hearst wielded a machine gun. I was curious and opened it up.
Inside, the main feature was a blow-by-blow description of the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, ending with his resignation and a helicoptered flight out of town.
I was young when President Nixon resigned but I still remember the euphoria I shared with friends after the news broke. I felt restored by the triumph of a democratic system over the machinations of a power-hungry politician turned rogue.
For two years before his 1974 resignation, it had been hard to avoid the investigations into the crooked dealings of the aptly-named CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). First the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters, then the trials of the burglars and the pressure to find out who directed their ill-fated foray. When the president’s lawyer, John Dean, testified that the president was involved in a cover-up of the administration’s role in the break-in, Nixon himself became a target.
As an 18-year-old, I was naïve and skeptical of everything. Protests again the Vietnam War had inflamed my passions and the government seemed to turn a deaf ear to popular opposition. The secret bombing of Laos, the invasion of Cambodia, the killing of protesters at Kent State University had made me cynical at a young age.
Surprisingly, the revelations of the presidential cover-up, with the details of his scheming and bald-faced lies, gave me hope. Could a president really be held accountable for his crimes? I watched the proceedings of the Senate Watergate proceedings with glee. Could the most powerful leader in the world be taken down?
Nixon Tried & Failed to Use the Judiciary to Save Himself
Under fire, President Nixon fought back. He ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused and was fired, too. Nixon did not give up. He ordered the Solicitor General to discharge Cox, then appointed his hand-picked special counsel.
Score one for the president, who also refused to release secret tape recordings of conversations in his office after the Watergate break-in. His manipulations became more desperate. I scratched my head, dumbfounded, at the president’s claim that a section of the tapes had been mysteriously erased when his secretary answered a phone.
In April 1974, Nixon took his case to the Supreme Court, arguing against releasing the tapes to the House Judiciary Committee. When the Court ruled unanimously against him, Nixon reeled from the blow. Weeks later, the tapes were finally played and Nixon’s role in the cover-up was revealed. Days later, he resigned.
How will the current mess in the Trump White House end? Will Congress flex its power to check the President? Will top judicial staff turn against him when they can no longer defend his actions?
On that August day in 1974 I remember a lightness, an excitement stemming from our democratic process. Pride, really, in a system of government that could bring down a president caught in a web of lies.
These days I talk to friends who are frightened that our president is casting the country into chaos, turning our allies into adversaries and making our adversaries our new best pals. I worry, too, but I’m not willing to give up on democracy and the power of our system to correct its course.