“To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
Richard M. Nixon August 8, 1974
Those words coming through our 19 inch Magnavox echoed relief for my father. To say he never cared for Richard Nixon was kind at best. The television images revealed a blank, defeated look in the president’s brown eyes. A sheaf of papers in the foreground seemed to provide a thin wall between a fallen leader and the people whose trust was betrayed. A wall that no longer could hide the truth. I don’t recall what dad said during that primetime speech, but I remember he was elated over the president stepping down. It’s not hard to imagine, being that he was a union carpenter, who always pulled the lever for Democrats. “Tricky Dick,” that pejorative often used towards Nixon by his detractors, could often be heard from the lips of my father, who like many in 1974, thought the country was on the wrong track. I, at 12 years old, was more concerned about the Pittsburgh Pirates making their run at another division title, and the girls who frequented the baseball fields watching us play on those muggy summer days. But that speech left me with an empty feeling about what nation I would inherit. The President of the United States had just announced he was leaving– a watershed moment for a decade that marked a turning point in America. Our dinner conversation in the 1970′s often centered on high inflation, something called the “energy crisis,” and Watergate–the scandal that led to this television view of a tired looking man; the most powerful leader in the world exiting the White House under a cloud of shame.
WAVY-TV News Director Jim Gilchriest, who was just 11 at the time, took his cue from his parents as they watched this historic broadcast.
“When he said, ‘I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow’ my mother gasped and, in reaction to her, I started crying.”
WAVY Sports Director Bruce Rader worked for a Washington TV station during that summer of 1974. He recalls spending the night in a station truck on Pennsylvania Avenue next to Lafayette Park near the White House.
“That night all three networks did live cut ins while thousands of young people celebrated behind us on Pennsylvania Avenue. I asked a couple of DC police officers if they would help us with the rowdy kids during our lives shots, and the cops told us we were the reason the President was being forced to resign and they were not going to help us at all. As soon as we turned off our lights at 11:30, the DC police lined up in riot gear on Pennsylvania Avenue near the executive office building and started marching down Pennsylvania Avenue swinging their billy clubs hitting the demonstrators. Many of the young people were taken to the hospital, some with serious injuries.”
Rader also remembers a seeing a young Tom Brokaw, who had become the NBC White House Correspondent just a year before, and “couldn’t imagine he would be covering the Gerald Ford White House.”
America was winding down it’s involvement in Vietnam, and a deep recession was hurting families across all income levels. To this 12 year old, it seemed the world was coming apart. Our once beacon of hope for the free world, seemed to be descending into darkness. WAVY’s Chief Meteorologist Don Slater recalls the climax and resolution of Watergate with a sentiment shared by millions,
“Once the end happened and the President resigned, it was a scary moment. Whoa! This has never happened before. What happens now? What is the future of my country?”
The next day provided the resolution to this national drama. From the vantage point much closer to history, Bruce Rader recalled a tragic figure making his final walk from the White House after passing the torch to Vice President Gerald Ford. This scene would transform Rader’s choice of career in television.
“Nixon got on his helicopter waved to his staff and took off. I had been at the White House for over 24 hours, I went back to the office and they sent me to RFK Stadium because we were broadcasting a Redskins preseason game that night. It was at that point I decided once and for all I did not want to cover news I was more comfortable in sports. At least in sports somebody wins.”