On the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as president, his admission of guilt has finally been made public in a 1983 videotaped interview with him by an old White House aide.
Speaking of the "smoking gun" White House tape in which he talked about raising hush money for the arrested Watergate burglars, Nixon tells aide Frank Gannon: "This was the final blow, the nail in the coffin. Although you didn't need another nail if you were already in the coffin, which we were."
Then he goes on: "I'm a fighter, I just didn't want to quit. Also I thought it would be an admission of guilt, which of course it was." It is a flat statement that up to then he had been unwilling to make, even in his much-ballyhooed televised interview with David Frost after leaving office.
A review of those last days before he resigned finds a little-highlighted twist to Nixon's surrender. Archives note that up to a couple of days before he did so, he was considering holding on, to the point that one of his chief speechwriters, Ray Price, prepared a speech to that effect that said resignation could be "widely interpreted as evidence that I was involved from the outset in efforts at cover-up."
According to Mr. Price, Nixon never saw the speech but plans were to have it published in the New York Times later, in 1996. It said that it was "a serious mistake" not to have disclosed that incriminating tape much sooner, that Nixon had "seriously considered resigning" but felt it would have left "a permanent crack in our constitutional structure; it would establish the principle that under pressure, a president could be removed from office by means short of those provided by the Constitution."
The prepared speech went on to say that he believed he had not "committed any act of commission or omission that justifies removing a duly elected president from office. If I did believe that I had committed such an act, I would have resigned long ago."
On Aug.7, 1974, The Washington Post ran a front-page banner reading, "Nixon Says He Won't Resign; Feels Such a Step Would be 'Outside the Constitution.'" But at the same time, three prominent Republicans in Congress — Sens. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, then the Senate minority leader; and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona, the House minority leader — called on Nixon at the White House and told him he did not have enough votes to avoid impeachment and conviction on three articles of impeachment.
Although one previous president, Andrew Johnson, had been impeached by the House after the Civil War, he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate, and Nixon would have been the first convicted in the country's history. Faced with that unprecedented stain on his political career, he finally bowed to the inevitable and announced his plan to resign the next day, which he did.
But the Ray Price speech draft, later filed in the National Archives, illustrated Nixon's willingness to the end to insist that he had done nothing warranting being removed from office. The Gannon interview finally brought from him the flat statement that the "smoking gun" was "an admission of guilt."
The 40th anniversary of his resignation has also brought forth another round of books on the Nixon tapes that were his undoing in the Watergate affair, including a new HBO documentary called "Nixon on Nixon." It provides little that was not already known about him in those destructive days, but is filled with more of the cunning, deception, vitriol and racial and ethnic slurs already laid bare in earlier tapes.
Even more, there is more evidence of Nixon's remarkable insecurity considering the heights he reached, and his need for personal reassurances of sycophantic aides, notably including his national security adviser and later secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. In the end, probably no American president has been more scrutinized than this pathologically secretive man, whose almost single-minded focus on playing politics with a ruthless hand finally brought him down, declaring his innocence almost to the end.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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