Nixon legacy still sparks debate, 25 years after resignation
August 8, 1999
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT)
LOS ANGELES (AllPolitics, August 8) -- Twenty-five years
after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace during the
Watergate scandal, the debate continues over the true legacy
of one of the century's most controversial political figures.
Nixon told the nation, "I shall resign the presidency
effective at noon tomorrow"
Nixon was forced to resign after secret tape recordings he
made revealed that he tried to thwart an investigation of the
break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee
during the 1972 presidential campaign.
He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974. It took
effect the next day, when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency.
"To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to
every instinct in my body," Nixon said in announcing he would
step aside. "But, as president, I must put the interests of
In the years that followed, Nixon tried hard to establish
himself as an elder statesman. While he was embraced by many
world leaders before his death in 1994, many Americans who
had lived through the constitutional crisis spawned by
Watergate saw the rehabilitation quest as an attempt to
downplay his complicity.
In later years, Nixon sought to establish himself as an
"One of the things that happened is, after he left office, he
began gradually taking back the notion that he had done
anything wrong," said Carl Bernstein, a journalist who helped
break the Watergate story for The Washington Post.
"We know from the tapes that have come out since his death
that Watergate was just a small part of a truly criminal
presidency," Bernstein said in an interview Sunday on NBC's
"Meet The Press."
To a large degree, the people of the United States appear not
to have forgiven Nixon. The public was asked to judge the
performance of five recent presidents in a 1998 Gallup poll.
Nixon not only had the lowest approval rating among the five;
he was the only one whose rating went down from a previous
poll in 1993.
And a just completed CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a
quarter century after Nixon left the White House, 72 percent
of those polled think Nixon's actions regarding Watergate
were serious enough to warrant his resignation.
"Nixon's resignation was about corruption of the worst sort
in a democracy," said Richard Dallek, a presidential
historian. "It was an assault upon a presidential election."
Indeed, Bernstein's partner in breaking the Watergate story,
Bob Woodward, argues in his new book "Shadow" that Nixon's
behavior during Watergate was such a monumental event that it
altered the very nature of the presidency for his successors.
But Nixon -- who served in both houses of Congress and as
vice president and who thawed relations with China and Russia
-- has his defenders. Curators at his presidential library in
Yorba Linda, California, try hard to counter the Watergate
caricature of Nixon by showing the 145,000 annual visitors
both his defeats and triumphs.
Nixon biographer Irwin Gellman says that many people in the
media and academic world "simply don't want to reflect on the
positive side of this man and basically look upon whatever he
did that was anything more than negative as irrelevant."
Ray Price, who helped write the speech that Nixon used to end
his presidency, believes that "eventually he will be viewed
as one of our great presidents."
"But this will not be until the commentators and historians
who have either invested their reputations or built their
reputations on the 'devil theory' are no longer doing it,"
That was an irony Nixon apparently understood. Twenty-five
years ago, as Nixon prepared to hand over the presidency to
Ford, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly told
Nixon that history would remember him well.
Ever the astute politician, Nixon reportedly replied, "Well,
that depends on who writes the history."
Correspondent Charles Feldman contributed to this report.