History In The Headlines

The Last Hours of the Nixon Presidency, 40 Years Ago

By Christopher Klein
To mark the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, the Richard Nixon Foundation and the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum have re-released a rarely seen 1983 video interview conducted by former aide Frank Gannon in which the 37th president speaks candidly about his final days in office and his decision to relinquish power. Read about Nixon’s last hours in the White House.
Flanked by family members, Richard Nixon delivers farewell address in the East Room of the White House, August 9, 1974.

Flanked by family members, Richard Nixon delivers farewell address in the East Room of the White House, August 9, 1974.

When Richard Nixon awoke on August 8, 1974, he knew it was all over. In his mind, Nixon had known since July 23—when three pivotal Southern Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee announced they would vote for his impeachment—that he could not survive. Nixon told his family of his decision to resign on August 2, but they urged him to reconsider. Three days later, however, the release of a transcript of a June 23, 1972, conversation between the president and H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff at the time, revealed that Nixon’s insistence that he had no involvement in the cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex was a lie.

The “smoking gun” proved fatal to the Nixon presidency. “This was the final blow, the final nail in the coffin,” Nixon told Gannon. “Although you don’t need another nail if you’re already in the coffin—which we were.” On August 7, a congressional delegation led by Republican Senator Barry Goldwater informed the president that he would not survive an impeachment vote. That night, Nixon finalized his decision to leave office. Even though the news had not been official, first lady Pat Nixon had already spent two sleepless days packing up five-and-a-half years of mementoes and memories. “With us sometimes,” Nixon reflected. “You don’t have to say it publicly, or even privately. Things unspoken say it more strongly.”

Nixon's resignation letter

Nixon's resignation letter

After catching just three fitful hours of sleep and visiting the White House’s one-chair barbershop for a trim of his wavy black hair, Nixon met with Vice President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office at 11 a.m.. to inform him that he would be sworn in as president the following day. Nixon thanked Ford for his loyalty and urged him to retain Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff Alexander Haig in his administration. “This is the last time I’ll call you Jerry, Mr. President,” Nixon said as the men shook hands after their meeting. “Brought a tear or two to his eyes—I think to mine, too,” Nixon recalled.

That evening, Nixon broke down in the Cabinet Room while informing members of Congress of his resignation, and he continued to weep while makeup was being applied before his final televised address to the country. Shortly before 9 p.m. a composed Nixon took a seat at his Oval Office desk and joked with the camera crew. When the red light on the television camera turned on, the president began to speak: “Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this nation.” Few words shaped the country as those he uttered minutes later, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

After the speech, Kissinger accompanied Nixon to his living quarters one last time. “History is going to record that you were a great president,” Kissinger assured Nixon. “Henry,” the president said, “that will depend on who writes the history.” Nixon then climbed the stairs to his living quarters and silently embraced his family, “saying nothing and saying everything.” From outside he could hear a familiar sound —the chants of protestors on Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of sounding off on the Vietnam War, this time they were shouting “Jail to the Chief!” “Didn’t bother me,” Nixon insisted, “After all I had been heckled by experts.”

The Nixons walking with the Fords as they leave the White House

The Nixons walking with the Fords as they leave the White House

Nixon stayed up to nearly 2 a.m. making phone calls. Unable to sleep much, the president arose and looked at the time on his watch—4 a.m. Barefoot and in blue pajamas, Nixon went to the kitchen and was surprised to find a waiter already there. “What are you doing here so early?” Nixon asked. “It isn’t early Mr. President. It’s almost six o’clock.” The president then realized his watch had stopped overnight. “The battery had run out, wore out at 4 o’clock the last day I was in office,” Nixon told Gannon. “By that day, I was worn out too.”

Instead of his usual light breakfast, Nixon ordered corned beef hash and poached eggs before beginning the 2,027th—and final—day of his presidency. Early that morning Haig entered the Oval Office and handed Nixon a single sheet of paper—a letter of resignation addressed to Secretary of State Kissinger as required by a 1792 presidential succession act. The letter was as brief as it was monumental: “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” Nixon picked up his felt-tip pen and scrawled his signature. Kissinger would later pen his initials in blue ink and note the receipt time of 11:35 a.m.

At 9:30 a.m. the president and his family entered the East Room of the White House. As “Hail to the Chief” blared, members of the Nixon cabinet and 300 White House staff rose and thundered their applause for three minutes while tears formed in the president’s eyes. Unlike the speech the night before, this address was more personal, more emotional as Nixon recounted the long journey that had brought him from Yorba Linda, California, to Washington, D.C. “We leave with high hopes, in good spirits and with deep humility, and with very much gratefulness in our hearts,” he assured his supporters before exiting the White House.

nixon saluteJoined by the Fords and flanked by a military guard, the Nixons walked down a long red carpet unfurled on the South Lawn before giving their goodbyes. Nixon climbed the steps of the presidential helicopter, turned around in the doorway and flashed a smile and his signature salute with arms outstretched and two fingers on each hand making the V sign. He took a seat to begin the grim trip home to San Clemente, California. The rotors whirled as the flying machine lifted off the ground. A panorama of national monuments—and the silhouette of the Watergate complex—paraded outside the windows as the White House faded from view. The first lady could only mutter to no one in particular, “It’s so sad. It’s so sad.” The president closed his eyes. By the time Air Force One touched down in California, he was an ordinary citizen.

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Categories: Richard Nixon, Watergate