During his farewell remarks in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974, President Richard Milhous Nixon told the truth.
Nixon remains a controversial and tarnished historical figure. But his impact on America was significant. Only Franklin Roosevelt’s name appeared on as many national ballots (five). His presidency, though now remembered by many for the way it ended, was actually filled with great achievement and success in many ways. Nixon was a brilliant visionary.
But he also had a weakness.
It was a failure to tell the truth that became Nixon’s undoing. The highly publicized tapes of what he thought would remain private conversations revealed that shortcoming. Nixon really did have enemies, but he later acknowledged that he was the one who gave them the sword to use with relish.
Forty years ago this weekend, I was a few days away from beginning my first year of college and was finishing up a summer job at a Taylor, Michigan menswear store. I asked my boss if I could leave a bit early on August 8th, and he asked me why. I told him that I wanted to watch the President’s speech. I made it home just as the living room clock chimed nine times. The image of President Nixon came on the screen, and he began: “Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office.”
My mother was crying. Mom and Dad were Nixon people since voting for him when he was Vice President under Eisenhower. I was an “Alex P. Keaton” type of kid who often defended Nixon to my high school teachers. Fortunately for me, the summer of 1974 began and school was out by the time I finally realized that Watergate indeed involved Nixon, saving me from a litany of condescending voices saying, “I told you so.”
However my interest in Nixon, his work and legacy, did not end when he waved, flashed a victory sign, and got into Marine One on the White House lawn. I wrote about him in graduate school, and years later had the privilege of writing some for his library in Yorba Linda, as well as doing some of the voice-over work that continues to be used in a few exhibits there.
As we note the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, I think it’s what the man said to his staff and other assembled guests that continues to resonate with me. It was an unusual address for someone who was a master at extemporaneous speaking.