Recordings shed light on Nixon's last days in office
Posted: August 6, 2014 at 5:06 a.m.
YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- Almost a decade after Richard Nixon resigned, the disgraced former president sat down with his one-time aide and told the tale of his fall from grace in his own words.
For three decades, that version of one of the nation's largest and most-dissected political scandals largely gathered dust -- until this week.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, parts of the tapes are being published each day by the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum and the private Richard Nixon Foundation.
The postings began Tuesday with Nixon recalling the day he decided to resign, and they end Saturday -- exactly 40 years after his last day in office -- with the 37th president discussing his final day at the White House, when he signed the resignation agreement, gave a short speech and boarded a helicopter for San Clemente, Calif.
The segments were culled from more than 30 hours of interviews that Nixon did with former aide Frank Gannon in 1983. The sections on Watergate aired publicly once, on CBS News, before gathering dust at the University of Georgia for more than 30 years.
"This is as close to what anybody is going to experience sitting down and having a beer with Nixon, sitting down with him in his living room," said Gannon, now a writer and historian in Washington, D.C.
"Like him or not, whether you think that his resignation was a tragedy for the nation or that he got out of town one step ahead of the sheriff, he was a human being," he said.
Nixon, who died in 1994, had hoped that providing his own narrative would help temper America's final judgment of him.
Perhaps with that in mind, he didn't shy away from the tough questions, commenting on topics such as the threat of impeachment and the so-called "smoking gun" conversation that included evidence he participated in a Watergate cover-up.
"This was the final blow, the final nail in the coffin. Although you don't need another nail if you're already in the coffin -- which we were," Nixon said in a segment about the June 23, 1972, tape.
Nixon said that when he decided to resign, he faced such strong resistance from his wife that he took a transcript of the "smoking gun" tape to a family meeting to show her how bad it was.
"I'm a fighter; I just didn't want to quit. Also I thought it would be an admission of guilt, which of course it was," he said. "And, also, I felt it would set a terribly bad precedent for the future."
The tone of the tapes contrasts with the sometimes adversarial tone of the well-known series of Nixon interviews done in 1977 by British journalist David Frost.
Nixon appears relaxed in the tapes. He smiles occasionally, speaks fondly about his two daughters and wife and seems emotional while recalling the final days of his fraught administration, as pressure mounted for his impeachment over a 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to the president's re-election committee.
Luke Nichter, a Nixon expert and professor at Texas A&M University, said that with the passage of time, every former president sees his legacy re-examined and recast.
"Watergate's never going to go away," Nichter said. "Nixon's role in that and the cover-up is so well-documented. But I think what we're trying to say here, 40 years later, is Nixon doesn't have to be all bad or all good. He can be a combination of the good, bad and ugly."
Nixon denied knowing ahead of time about plans for the break-in, but an 18½ minute gap in a recording of a post-Watergate White House meeting led many to suspect a cover-up.
Faced with impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and retreated to his native California. The next month he was granted a pardon by President Gerald Ford.
In the final segment of the tapes, to be released Saturday, Nixon recalls his last day at the White House.
After a fitful night, he awoke at 4 a.m. and went to the kitchen where he was surprised to find a kitchen staff member already there.
The staff member told Nixon it was actually 6 a.m. -- the president's watch had stopped overnight.
"The battery had run out, wore out at 4 o'clock the last day I was in office," Nixon said ruefully. "By that day, I was worn out, too."
A Section on 08/06/2014