“I knew that we could not survive.” — Richard Nixon in an interview in 1983.
On August 9, 1974, the country witnessed its first ever presidential resignation. Richard M. Nixon, the first sitting president to visit China and the Soviet Union, creator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was taken down by the Watergate scandal.
Two weeks earlier, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon must turn over all tapes of communications recorded in the White House, including the infamous “smoking gun” tape. Nixon was informed that he would not survive an impeachment. In an interview conducted by former White House aide Frank Gannon in 1983, Nixon spoke about his last days in the White House.
Nixon informed his family of his decision two days before his announcement. White House photographer, and family friend, Oliver Atkins walked into the situation in the California Room. Nixon’s daughters were in tears. “I suggested we make a few family pictures and the president came to my support.” said Atkins to People Magazine in 1976. “Mrs. Nixon gave in to everyone else, and I took four or five shots. The whole thing took about five minutes.” The President was not one to feel at ease in from of a camera but uncharacteristically wanted this event recorded, though he thought it would be kept for private purposes. After the family portrait, Atkins was able to get a very personal shot of the president embracing his daughter Julie, his biggest defender. His secretary Rose Mary Woods suggested that Atkins should get a shot of the president with the family poodle, Vicky. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Atkins, “but it is the last picture of the president shot that night in the White House.”
The next morning, Nixon met with Vice President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office to discuss the transfer of power. At the end the two men shook hands and left. “Jerry, this is the last time I’ll call you Jerry, Mr. President.” Nixon said, “brought a tear or two to his eyes—I think to mine, too.” In the evening he informed members of Congress, and then later to his supporters. The meeting with the supporters was his most emotional one. He choked up and said, “I just hope I haven’t let you down.” He continued to weep until just before he went on live TV to announce his resignation, effective at noon the next day, to the country. After his announcement, he met with his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger who told him “Mr. President, history is going to record that you were a great president.” To which he replied, “Henry, that will depend on who writes the history.”
In his final day in the White House he signed his resignation letter and spoke to the White House staff. “[I] spoke from the heart” he told Gannon, “told them that they must not allow what happened to me to discourage them, in effect, that we learn from our defeats, that life isn’t over because you suffer a defeat.” He remembers this address being very personal and emotional. With the Fords and military guards, the Nixon’s then made their way down a red carpet on the South Lawn to the presidential helicopter. Nixon turned around, smiled, and gave his signature salute.
The gallery above shows photos of Nixon’s last few days at the White House. Click here to read the entire transcript of the interview.