Forty years ago, we witnessed an unprecedented event when Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. As an 18-year-old political neophyte, I found myself bemused by Nixon’s shenanigans and engrossed in the melodrama called Watergate unfolding in the nation’s capital.
So it was with deep regret that I watched Nixon’s televised address on Aug. 8, 1974, and heard him utter words never spoken before in the Oval Office — “Therefore, I shall resign the presidency … ” At that historic moment, I felt heartily sorry.
Not sorry for Nixon, especially not when he swaggered across the White House lawn the next day and mounted the helicopter, smirking triumphantly and brandishing the double-V victory sign as if he had just won another election. Nor was I sorry for his minions, although they would do jail time for their lockstep loyalty to the commander-in-chief while he would emerge with a full, free and absolute pardon.
No, I felt sorry that this was curtains for Watergate! I rued the day this delicious Hollywood-couldn’t-write-a-better-script scandal took its final bow. I regretted that this modern-day Shakespearean tragedy had reached its denouement and would no longer monopolize the media and mesmerize us 24/7. What a colossal letdown!
“I have never been a quitter,” Nixon insisted. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.”
Quitting? How dare he? Unlike Gerald Ford, I didn’t want “our national nightmare” to be over.
For two years, I had lived, breathed and consumed Watergate, doggedly following its tortuous path starting with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Watergate flowed through my blood. I couldn’t get enough. What would I do without Watergate?
No more Cuban-American burglars in business suits. No more ex-CIA agents bugging offices and blackmailing the president. No more stonewalling by press secretary Ron Ziegler. No more rumors about the White House plumbers fixing leaks. No more Saturday Night Massacres at the Justice Department. No more cancers growing on the presidency. No more smoking guns.
As scandals go, Watergate had it all. First there was the flawed tragic hero — or villain, if you prefer — in Richard Nixon, who sweated paranoia as he wrapped himself tightly in his national-security blanket. He oozed corruption, felled by his own ruthless ambition, a modern-day Macbeth on a downward spiral to political annihilation.
Nixon was the politician you loved to hate. Count my mom and dad among those who enjoyed skewering him. While Watergate dragged on, increasingly implicating Nixon, dinner table conversations went like this:
Mom (declaring with conviction): “I always said he was an SOB! You can’t trust him. He’s a real sneak.”
Dad (shaking his head sadly): “He’s a crook all right. That’s why they call him Tricky Dick.”
Me (eager to burnish my anti-Nixon credentials): “He knew about the cover-up. He’s lying and I don’t believe a word he says.”
Watergate had many other unforgettable players who paraded before the public during the constant media coverage. Who could forget G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, the smarmy erstwhile FBI and CIA henchmen who masterminded the break-in, along with other furtive schemes and black-bag jobs to rival James Bond?
Remember Nixon’s top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, dubbed the “Berlin Wall” by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger? In return for their servility to the president, they were the first to get burned when Watergate began to scorch the White House. With his own political skin at risk, Nixon didn’t hesitate to jettison his faithful slaves, desperate to douse the flames of suspicion engulfing his presidency.
Perhaps the most compelling figure was the mysterious Deep Throat who met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward at night in the shadowy bowels of a parking garage to share secret intelligence and help him untangle the Watergate web. Could anything be spook-ier?
On top of intrigue, Watergate had betrayal. White House Counsel John Dean played Brutus to Nixon’s Julius Caesar during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, twisting the knife in Nixon’s back with his damning testimony as he accused the president of concocting the cover-up and exposed the man’s lies to the American people, all the while bathed in the adoring gaze of his wife, Maureen, a cool platinum blonde as conspicuous in the Capitol Hill crowd as a Barbie doll in a boardroom.
Watergate even had lurid tales of abduction. Mouthy Martha Mitchell, eccentric wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign chairman, claimed government goons had kidnapped, gagged and drugged her in a California hotel to stop her from squealing on Nixon.
Unfortunately, from Nixon’s viewpoint, nobody gagged White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who blabbed about the Oval Office taping system to the Senate committee, directly leading to Watergate’s climax. After a year of unceasing litigation which pitted an imperial president against Congress and special prosecutors, the Supreme Court forced Nixon to relinquish the White House tapes, which would either exonerate or condemn him. Ultimately, he surrendered.
My disappointment was keen when I watched him depart from the White House for the last time.
Oh, how I yearned for the bygone days of the Watergate hearings when Sen. Sam Ervin’s eyebrows danced and “all the president’s men” discoursed. I longed for more staggering revelations like the 18-and-a-half-minute gap on one White House tape. I missed the president’s secretary, Rosemary Woods, who supposedly erased the tape by accident. (Yeah, right.)
Since Nixon resigned, we’ve had numerous scandals — Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Monicagate, Bridgegate — but none has matched the glory that was Watergate.
Diane Vrabel is a retired training coordinator for the IRS living in Mt. Lebanon (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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