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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 resigns
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 America first."

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.

The Nixons
In later years, Nixon sought to establish himself as an elder statesman  

"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," Price said.

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.


Cast of characters

How well do you remember Watergate?


Nixon announces his resignation (1.1MB QuickTime)

"...sometimes I have suceeded, sometimes I have failed." (1.1MB QuickTIme)

"I have never been a quitter..."(1MB QuickTime)

"...if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong..." (832K QuickTime)


"...those who hate you don't win unless you hate them..." (1.2M QuickTime)

"...the best is au revoir." (704K QuickTime)

Nixon leaves the White House (1MB QuickTime)


Nixon's resignation changed American politics forever (8-6-99)

Who Was Deep Throat? (8-6-99)

From Watergate to Whitewater: History of the independent counsel (6-30-99)

'Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate'

New Nixon tape transcripts released on Web (2-25-99)

Nixon aide Ehrlichman dead at 73

Washington scandals daunting documenters of history

Report: Tapes show Nixon ordered break-ins

Nixon White House open to all with release of tapes

U.S. archive official denies settlement on Nixon papers

Examiner: Nixon urged audits of Jewish donors


Nixon Presidential Project -- Home of the 4,000 hours of White House tapes

TIME: 1973 Man of the Year -- Judge John J. Sirica

Grolier Online -- The American Presidency: Watergate

Illusion and Delusion: The Wategate Decade -- Striking black and white photographs

National Archives and Records Administration: Nixon and Watergate -- Watergate artifacts, including security guard log entry about the break-in

Silent Coup -- A revisionist history of the break-in that lays the blame on John Dean

The Nixon Library & Birthplace -- Celebrates Nixon as an "architect of peace."


Sunday, August 8, 1999

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