On 9 August 1974, his last morning as president of the United States, Richard Nixon got up at six. Still in his pyjamas, he asked the chef to prepare his favourite meal, corned beef hash and poached eggs. He ate alone in his beloved Lincoln Sitting Room, staring into the fire’s dying embers, doubtless pondering the Watergate scandal that had shattered his credibility and made him the first president in history to step down. After breakfast there was a knock on the door: an aide bringing the ceremonial letter. Beneath the words “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States,” Nixon scrawled his name.
At nine o’clock, Nixon led his family into the East Room of the White House, where they looked down at the ranks of officials. Even on this last, emotionally searing occasion, everything had been planned with television in mind, and little pieces of tape indicated where each of them should stand. For Nixon’s elder daughter, Tricia, it was a dreadful experience. “Platform ahead,” she recorded in her diary, remembering the scene. “Step up onto platform. Find name marker. Do not trip over wires. Stand on name marker. Reach for Mama’s hand. Hold it. Applause. Daddy is speaking. People are letting tears roll down their cheeks. Must not look. Must not think of it now.”
Exhausted from lack of sleep, shattered after 18 months of pressure, her father stood perspiring beneath the television lights. After everything that he had fought for, after all his hard work to drag himself from the parched earth of California to the elegant staterooms of the White House, he was leaving in disgrace. The shame must have been overwhelming. Nixon stood there before the world, red-eyed, half-smiling. And so often at times of stress, he retreated to the self-pity of the self-made man. “I had come so far from the little house in Yorba Linda to this great house in Washington,” he reflected. “I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way. You know what he was? He was a streetcar motorman first, and then he was a farmer, and then he had a lemon ranch. It was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you. He sold it before they found oil on it.”
For a moment, there was total silence. Then, blinking away tears, Nixon pulled himself back. Putting on his glasses for the first time in public, he read in a trembling voice the moving words written by Theodore Roosevelt after the death of his first wife. At the last line – “And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever” – his voice almost broke with the strain, and there were muffled sobs from the chairs before him. Yet Nixon went on. “The greatness comes not when things go always good for you,” he said. “The greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
On the last words, Nixon’s eyes closed. Then, abruptly, he dragged himself onwards. He had some last advice for his audience. “Always give your best,” he said. “Never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
With the applause ringing in his ears, Nixon led his family downstairs, where Vice President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty were waiting for them. “Good luck, Mr President,” Nixon said coldly. They stepped out onto the South Portico and walked slowly along the red carpet, towards the army helicopter. At the foot of the steps, Nixon paused, and Ford said nervously: “Drop us a line if you get the chance. Let us know how you are doing.”
Nixon mounted the steps, and then turned to face the White House. Glaring furiously, he waved his right arm across in a clumsy farewell and then, in the final bizarre moment of his presidency, thrust both arms into the air in his trademark V-for-victory salute. He held the gesture for a moment, his face cracked by an enormous grin. And then the helicopter lifted off the lawn, and he was gone.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.
This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine