• U.S.

Nation 1974: At Last, Time for Healing the Wounds Nixon Resigns

6 minute read

At Last, Time for Healing the Wounds

It was over. At last, after so many months of poisonous suspicion, a kind of undeclared civil war that finally engaged all three branches of the American Government, the ordeal had ended. As the Spirit of 76 in one last errand arced across central Missouri carrying Richard Nixon to his retirement, Gerald Rudolph Ford stood in the East Room of the White House, placed his hand upon his eldest son’s Bible, and repeated the presidential oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” By the time the 37th President of the U.S. arrived at the Pacific, the 38th President had taken command.

It was the first time in American history that a President had resigned his office. The precedent was melancholy, but it was hardly traumatic. All of the damage had been done before in the seemingly interminable spectacle of high officials marched through courtrooms, in the recitation of burglaries, crooked campaign contributions and bribes, enemies lists, powers abused, subpoenas ignored—above all, in the ugly but mesmerizing suspense as the investigations drew closer and closer to the Oval Office. Now the dominant emotion throughout the nation was one of sheer relief.

A few of Nixon’s last supporters still summoned up bitterness. Not a few Americans cracked open bottles of champagne. Mostly, the nation was massively grateful to have it ended. As Ford said at his swearing-in, “Our long national nightmare is over.” By his leaving, Nixon seemed at last to redeem the 1968 pledge he took from a girl holding up a campaign sign in Ohio: BRING US TOGETHER.

The denouement was jarring in its swift resolution and therefore a bit surreal. Nearly 800 days after the Watergate breakin, 289 days after the Saturday Night Massacre, 97 days after the White House transcripts were released, twelve days after the Supreme Court voted, 8 to 0, that the President must surrender 64 more tapes, five days after the House Judiciary Committee voted out articles of impeachment, Nixon’s defenses finally vanished. On Monday he issued the June 23, 1972, transcript that amounted to a confession to obstruction of justice and to lying to the American people. With that his clock had run out.

His televised resignation speech was a peculiar performance. In some ways, it sounded like a State of the Union address, a recitation of his achievements. He admitted no guilt, only casually did he mention mistakes made “in the best interests of the nation.” If some expected a bitter, angry valedictory, Nixon was controlled and ultimately conciliatory. Nixon once said that the test of a people is the way it handles the transition of power, and last week—in his resignation speech if not in his mawkish, self-pitying White House goodbye—he deserved credit for helping to bring off the transition with dignity in what must have been the most painful moment of his life.

The departure of Nixon was, above all, an extraordinary triumph of the American system. There were, of course, useful accidents of fate and generous helpings of blind luck. A night watchman named Frank Wills came upon the Watergate burglars one night when they taped some door locks with an almost ostentatious incompetence. The system was fortunate that Judge John Sirica pursued the case. And above all that Richard Nixon was surreptitiously taping his own conversations, and that he somehow never thought, or considered it necessary, or perhaps just did not dare, to heave all the tapes into the White House incinerator after their existence became known. Had it not been for the tapes, Richard Nixon would quite possibly have remained in the White House until January 1977. No presidency in the nation’s history has ever been so well documented, and it is safe to predict that none will be again.

But it was, at last, Richard Nixon who destroyed his own presidency. His White House, as revealed in the transcripts, was saturated with pettiness and hatred, a siege mentality, Us against Them. It was an unhappy and self-defeating spirit in which to govern a democracy.

Nixon is gone—not a martyred figure as he may believe but tragic at least in his fall from a great height. He is gone because, with all its luck in this case, the American system, the Congress and the Judiciary, with the eventual overwhelming support of public opinion, slowly and carefully excised him from the body politic. If there is a certain “the-king-is-dead-long-live-the-king” spirit in the American mood, the nation feels also that it deserves something better in its leadership and is going to get it.


The Hearst Nightmare

The robbers—a black man and four white women—strode swiftly into the Hibernia Bank branch in San Francisco’s Sunset district, pulling out semiautomatic carbines from under their long black coats. “Get on the floor, get on the floor,” barked the stubbly-bearded leader at the two dozen terrified employees and customers. Two of the women rushed to the cash drawers, while another, in the best Bonnie-and-Clyde style, proudly announced: “We’re from the S.L.A.” One of the gang gestured toward the young woman who had taken up a position at the middle of the seven tellers’ cages and shouted: “This is Tania Hearst!”

That surreal scene, captured on film by the bank’s automatic cameras, was the Symbionese Liberation Army’s way of introducing Patricia Campbell Hearst, 20, to the world in their role for her as an armed terrorist. The bizarre development in one of the most sensational crime sagas in U.S. history added a sharp new edge to the fears of a particular class of Americans, the wealthy and vulnerable.

Only three months ago, Patty Hearst was a quiet,, comely heiress to a famed publishing fortune who spent much of her time preparing for her intended marriage to Steven Andrew Weed, 26, a graduate philosophy student. Kidnaped on Feb. 4 by the obscure revolutionary band that grandiosely calls itself an army but is more of a ragtag platoon, she seemed close to release two weeks ago, after her family started a free-food program for the Bay Area’s needy and aged that the S.L.A. had demanded. Then she stunned her family and friends by announcing that she had renounced them, joined her abductors, and adopted the name Tania after the German-Argentine mistress of Latin American Revolutionary Che Guevara. Whether through conversion or coercion, she materialized last week in the role of a foul-mouthed bank robber. In the bewilderment shared by all who have followed the case, her anguished father Randolph A. Hearst exclaimed: “It’s terrible! Sixty days ago, she was a lovely child. Now there’s a picture of her in a bank with a gun in her hand.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com