On Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States, an unmistakable historical "first" from a political figure who thirsted for historical firsts all of his life. The incredible revelations starting with the Watergate break-in had included a presidential administration guilty of wiretapping and burglary for political purposes, Internal Revenue Service audits employed against political "enemies," the use of the CIA and FBI in the obstruction of justice, the hiring of saboteurs to help Nixon defeat the Democratic candidate by a landslide, the laundering of money, pay-offs for hush money, the altering of evidence and the coaching of witnesses for testimony before investigators and grand juries.
The individuals involved included at least 21 major figures who were accused of various acts of wrong doing, and many of those were indicted and convicted of criminal offenses. Richard Nixon himself was pardoned by the president who succeeded him, Gerald Ford. The Watergate hearings kept Americans transfixed for 37 days of unprecedented testimony about presidential abuse of power. The hearings were high drama, with such theatrical figures as Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the wise, Bible-quoting "country lawyer" who chaired the proceedings; H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, the arrogant Nixon lieutenants; Tony Ulasewicz, the humorous bagman; G. Gordon Liddy, the devoted "plumber" whose lips were forever sealed; and John Dean, the administration counsel with the photographic memory who ratted on his colleagues.I can remember it all vividly, as if it were yesterday. It seemed certain that this disgraced president would go down in history as the most corrupt ever, easily exceeding Warren G. Harding. Harding's sins were mostly confined to choosing questionable cronies such as Harry Daugherty to be Attorney General and Albert Fall to be Secretary of the Interior. They betrayed him and proceeded to feather their own nest. On the other hand, Nixon and his henchmen were found guilty of being seduced by lust for political power. As Ervin said in his summation after the hearings, "They resorted to evil means to promote what they conceived to be a good end."
In Ervin's opinion, "they had forgotten, if they ever knew, that the Constitution is designed to be a law for rulers and people alike at all times and under all circumstances; and that no doctrine involving more pernicious consequences to the commonweal has ever been invented by man than the notion that any of its provisions can be suspended by the president for any reason whatsoever . . . "
When Nixon flew to California after his resignation, it seemed that he had thoroughly destroyed himself. People who saw him in the first few months reported him as depressed and possibly even suicidal. It did not last long. Almost 14 years later, he seems almost totally rehabilitated. In the last decade he has visited several foreign countries, written several books, the most recent "1999: Victory Without War," given many speeches and consented to several interviews, besides advising the in cumbent in the White House.
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Watergate, Nixon accepted a standing ovation when he spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1984. In 1986, he made the cover of "Newsweek" which announced unapologetically, "He's Back." Then in 1988 he popped up for a full hour's interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," a program so heralded that it lifted sagging ratings impressively. There he was, the Elder Statesman, making numerous pronouncements about all sorts of things on the national and international scene. Although his famous upper lip was as sweaty as ever on TV, he seemed remarkably relaxed. Watergate, he said, "was a small thing" that his administration had "fouled up beyond belief," but no attempt at apology or humility.
In 1984, Nixon said that "There's no way that you could apologize that is more eloquent, more decisive, more finite, which would exceed resigning the presidency of the United States. That said it all." Perhaps. But Nixon has applied the same fervor to rehabilitating his place in history as he did to political comebacks in 1952 when he gave the "Checkers" speech which kept him on Ike's ticket, and in 1968 when he was elected president after humiliating losses to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and to Pat Brown when he tried to be governor of California in 1962. On "Meet the Press," he said that he could not count on the historians to revive his image because most of them are "left wing." It appears that Richard Nixon has decided to stay around long enough to write the history himself.
## Dennis Lythgoe is a professor of history at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.