On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon become the only U.S. President to resign from office.

On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon become the only U.S. President to resign from office.

August 8, 2014 was a Thursday. I had been at day camp with Howard Enis, aka the “Loud Librarian” as he’s now known. It was after dinner and we were downstairs in my parent’s house. We were probably listening to Wings’ “Band on the Run” and reading through MAD Magazine. Then my father came downstairs.

“I’d like you boys to come upstairs and watch the TV with us,” is what I think he said. “It’s important. You’re going to see something historical.”

So we went to the kitchen where the color 13” Panasonic was tuned to CBS News. Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather were conferring that President Nixon was about to resign from his job.

Sure enough, that’s what happened. I still remember the sweaty lip, the barely contained emotion, and how weak and pathetic the man considered the Devil Incarnate seemed at that moment. He was beaten and you could see he had to give up.

It wasn’t like this was a huge surprise. Days before, the Congressional subcommittee investigating the Watergate break-in of 1972 had recommended that the U.S. House of Representatives begin impeachment proceedings against the President.

Notes, testimony and especially tape recordings that the White House tried and failed to suppress proved not only that President Nixon knew of the Watergate burglary, but endorsed it as a means to get at his enemies.

Even the one vocal Nixon supporter on the committee, a New Jersey Republican Congressman named Charles Sandman, had no choice but to agree that the President was guilty of abusing the powers of his office.

There were no mindless partisan politics involved. Congress was pretty much united in believing that Richard Nixon had to leave for the good of the country. He said so himself in the resignation speech: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0808.html

I was 11 years old at the time yet something of a political junkie. I followed the Watergate hearings with the same interest that most kids watched “Happy Days.”

Partly it was because I grew up in a Nixon-hating household. M y father told me how Nixon had lied and called people Communists to rile up voters, which led him to Congress, the Senate and the White House as Vice President to Dwight Eisenhower. He would tell of relatives, friends and college classmates who had flirted with Communism during the Great Depression because they thought capitalism had failed.

After World War II when the American economy rebounded and the Soviet Union became our enemy, many of those people hid that association in fear. While Stalin’s murderous methods had left most to be long disenchanted with communism, they suddenly found their patriotism questioned and ability to find work destroyed. It was because of paranoia created by politicians like Nixon and Joseph McCarthy.

Dad wasn’t alone in holding a grudge against the 37th President of the United States. In 1976, Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum in London reported that Nixon was a more hated figure than Hitler.

That certainly wasn’t fair. Nor did the severe hatred last that long. With the 1977 publication of his memoir “RN,” Nixon famously told British interviewer David Frost of his regret at lying to the American people and letting them down.

Since the book was compelling and Nixon came off as all too human, he garnered some forgiveness and respectability again. And whatever his personality flaws, Nixon had tremendous experience and insight, particularly with Russia and China.

Still, Nixon largely sat on the sidelines until he died in 1994. When studying American history at college during the Eighties, I began to feel a bit sorry for Nixon. Sure, he deserved his fate for Watergate, Kent State, the escalations of the Vietnam War and his own paranoia, but I felt that in several respects he’d done a good job as President.

Domestically, Nixon today would be considered moderate to liberal. He did not believe anyone in America should go hungry, and was willing to use the power of government to make certain that didn’t happen. He took measures to clean up our air and water, continued the Great Society entitlements that gave the poorest a chance, and kept the gap between rich and poor at reasonable levels. In foreign policy, no President since has had his chops.

Understanding that, I began to see Nixon as our most melodramatic historians and satirists have — a self-loathing Shakespearean tragedy roaming the house in a Scotch-induced rage. I particularly smile when I imagine him railing at the Kennedys for using their money and easy charm to buy elections.

Psychologically makes Nixon a fascinating figure. For all his brilliance, grasp of the issues and success in public life, Nixon couldn’t get past his resentment for lacking the kind of winning personality that earns people’s love. Watergate clearly showed that Nixon let those feelings about his enemies overwhelm him in his job.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of his resignation, HBO is airing of highlights from the 3,700 hours of White House tapes from 1971-73. They have reminded me again of how misguided, venal, prejudiced and dangerous that Nixon actually was. Hearing the hateful tones of Nixon’s voice again reminded me that justice did prevail on August 8, 1974.

Still, give old Tricky Dick some credit for knowing the score. Realizing that he was beaten, he left his job with whatever dignity he could muster. While the resignation speech was maudlin and almost comical in some respects, it did what it had to do. The next morning, with tears coming down his cheeks, Nixon waved from the White House lawn, got into the helicopter and disappeared for a few years.

Gerald Ford took over the Presidency without fanfare. Things went on as normal. The Constitution remained intact, the stock markets traded, and though the United States was hurting on many fronts that year, democracy continued unchanged. As dark as that time in history was, it was also one of our country’s proudest moments.

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