Nixon on Watergate: He Took One for the Team

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | August 9, 2014

August 9, 2014
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Those antiquarian enough to have made money betting that Richard M. Nixon, in the summer of 1974, would become the first – and only – president ever to resign, are still struck with wonder, forty years later, that they actually won. Back then, it seemed that Nixon, deeply embattled and more implicated in the Watergate scandal every day, would never give up proclaiming that he did not order, abet, and then seek to conceal, an illegal domestic intelligence break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel office complex. But when the House Judiciary Committee passed Articles of Impeachment, and a tape recording revealed him ordering a cover-up, Nixon had to go – and so left, speaking vaguely of “wrong judgments” but never, his role in Watergate itself. Even out of office – and busily resurrecting his reputation in a manner so miraculous as to suggest Lazarus – he almost never spoke about the scandal. Yet here, just months after resigning, he makes a startling claim about Watergate’s effects – and mentions what for him was virtually unmentionable: his resignation of the presidency.

To hear tell of it here, Nixon fell on his sword over Watergate, taking one, he writes to a loyalist, for the team. It is a rare mention from the disgraced president of the saga of political sabotage and high-level corruption which, in the face of impeachment and criminal prosecution, forced his resignation of the presidency in August 1974. Writing just six months later, he explains how his resignation was, essentially, a selfless act:

Richard Nixon
Richard M. Nixon press conference releasing the transcripts of the White House tapes. Jack E. Kightlinger. U.S. National Archives.

“I had thought that my resignation might have the effect of at least getting some of our friends off the hook in the upcoming November elections, but the issue was just too hot for our opponents to leave alone, and as a result, some very good men took it on the chin in the election when they did not deserve to do so.”

Nixon is pleased, however, that Curtis escaped the post-Watergate bloodbath:

“I was particularly happy that your support of me had not hurt you. As you can imagine, in the time since I Ieft Washington, my heart has gone out to those who stood by me at great political cost to themselves.”

He hopes, too, that Curtis’ selection as Chairman of the Republican Conference will allow for the development of policies “that are right for the country” and will “in addition, have some chance of being supported by what appears to be now a very irresponsible Congress.”

Nixon brooded in exile in San Clemente for many years, but managed, with extraordinary and marveled resilience, to return to public life, one more time, a respected elder statesman, a decade or so later. He rarely mentioned Watergate – and almost never, his resignation of the presidency.

RICHARD M. NIXON. 1913 – 1994. The 37th President of the United States.

CARL T. CURTIS. 1906 – 2000. American politician. A forty-year veteran of the House and Senate, the Nebraska Republican was a staunch Nixon loyalist to the end, and beyond.

Typed Letter Signed (“R.N.”), 1 page, quarto, Casa Pacifica, San Clemente, California, February 3, 1975. To Senator Carl T. Curtis.