On August 9th, 1974 Richard Milhous Nixon became the first and only sitting U.S. President to resign from the highest office of the land. He delivered a fifteen-minute nationally televised speech in the Oval Office the previous evening, announcing that he had relinquished his struggle to continue serving as the commander and chief, after his administration became overshadowed by the turmoil of the Watergate Scandal.
Less than two years earlier, Nixon had easily won re-election, with 60% of the vote. Now he was announcing that he was resigning the presidency. Gerald Ford, his Vice President, would be sworn in as the 38th President at noon the following day, to complete the remaining 895 days of his term.
Although the Watergate Investigation had been going on for over a year, Nixon’s downfall advanced post haste in the previous week, when he begrudgingly released partial transcripts of three taped conversations with his former White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, on June 23, 1972. As the New York Times reported, the tapes revealed that Nixon “ordered a halt to the investigation of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex here six days earlier by persons in the employ of agents of Mr. Nixon's re-election campaign.”
Still, while his resignation seemed inevitable, Nixon refused to say he would resign in the months and days leading up to his speech. In early 1973, he ended the United States involvement in the Vietnam War and a Gallup Poll showed that he had a 68% approval rating. He continued to try to regain support by campaigning across the country and even released information about his taxes and property. He also made several television and radio appearances to try to quell any concerns, to no avail. As the Watergate findings continued to become public, his approval rating dropped below an anemic 30% for the year.
Nixon, who fourteen years earlier appeared nervous and sweated profusely in his first televised presidential debate against an obscure Massachusetts senator named John Kennedy, exhibited no such defects in his resignation speech. Prior to taking the podium, he appeared calm and even joked with one of his aides with whom he facetiously suggested should deliver the speech, “blondes they say photograph better than brunettes,” he said.
When Nixon was informed the cameras would soon begin rolling, he shifted into a different gear. His expression changed. The grin disappeared, his posture became straighter, his eyes darted forward and he peered directly into the CBS, NBC and ABC cameras that were broadcasting his speech to the nation. His mouth opened and his voice suddenly had more force behind it.
“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. Each time I have done so to discuss with you some matter that I believe affected the national interest.”
Nixon who conceded that he did not have the necessary votes in Congress to avoid impeachment, expressed his sense of grief for not being able to finish his term, while also lending a voice of confidence to his successor. He did not show any resentment for his adversaries.
“And to those who have not felt able to give me your support, let me say I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me, because all of us, in the final analysis, have been concerned with the good of the country, however our judgments might differ.”
He finished by saying that he would continue to work for the causes that he fought for during his quarter century in public service and invoked the Bible.
“To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead.”