Friday, August 9, 1974: "Then you destroy yourself . . ."
On his last morning in power, President Richard Nixon arose in the predawn darkness after just a few hours of sleep. He ordered his favorite breakfast of poached eggs and corned-beef hash served to him, alone, in the Lincoln sitting room, the same room where twenty-two months earlier he had retreated by himself to watch on TV as he and Vice President Spiro Agnew were reelected in one of the greatest landslides in American history. The most inward, solitary, and reclusive of presidents—who paradoxically was determined to ensure that every word he spoke, and that was spoken to him, was recorded for history—Nixon to a rare degree determined exactly what he hoped to do and say in public beforehand, by himself, by filling yellow legal pads with notes, arguments, talking points, and exhortations to himself. In a few hours he would say good-bye to the people whom he most depended upon, and whom he'd most let down, betrayed, disappointed, and infuriated—his top administration, who'd served and defended him through the agonies of Watergate and Vietnam.
As through much of this "impeachment summer," the morning sky was dull and overcast, a soggy heat blanketing the South Lawn and the Ellipse, all but hazing out the Washington Monument less than a half mile away. A fire smoldered in Nixon's sitting room fireplace, one of several throughout the White House as aides tossed potentially troublesome documents into the flames. Already assistants had removed the contents of the president's three historic desks—Woodrow Wilson's, in the Oval Office; Dwight Eisenhower's, in room 175 of the Executive Office Building, which Nixon used as a hideaway; and the smaller Lincoln desk, in the president's sitting room in the residence—and packed them carefully into moving boxes now stacked for removal in the hallways. The office of retired General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Nixon's chief of staff, was cluttered with oversized plastic bags stuffed with shredded files that Haig said were duplicates.
After finishing breakfast, Nixon took a pad from his briefcase, slouched down on the small of his back in an armchair near the hearth, and started writing. Haig, who for the past fifteen months had handled the business of the presidency while Nixon struggled to stay in power, knocked and entered. A tireless regent, whose prideful West Point bearing was never quite concealed by the dark business suits he favored, and whose tenure was circumscribed by a thankless choice between deserting Nixon or going down with him, Haig had defended Nixon even as he concluded that he had to resign and so engineered his abdication. "There is something that will have to be done, Mr. President, and I thought you would rather do it now," he said, apologizing. He took a sheet of thick White House stationery and placed it on the Lincoln desk. Nixon read the single sentence, addressed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—I hereby resign the office of President of the United States—and signed it. After Haig left, Nixon returned to his musing, then summoned him back.
"He was haggard and ashen," Haig would recall. "He thanked me for what I had done for him. I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to serve. Nothing of a personal nature was said . . . By now, there was not much that could be said that we did not already understand."
Gripping files and a briefcase, Vice President Gerald Ford stepped into a crowd of reporters in front of the brick split-level house in Alexandria, Virginia, where he'd lived since the early fifties, when he was a young congressman from western Michigan, and which his wife Betty said "kind of grew along with the children." He smiled cautiously—dazed, it seemed, no less than other Americans by the implications of Nixon's announcement during his previous night's prime-time speech from the Oval Office: that he, Nixon, would evacuate the White House for exile at his California compound before noon today. Ford, shortly after, would be sworn in, becoming the "new man on the television set in the living room," as his biographer James Cannon put it.
Now age sixty-one, Ford had never sought the position; he was handed it, more or less, by bipartisan consensus ten months earlier. At the time, he had been a likable legislative blocker and party workhorse—House minority leader—and he'd recently made up his mind to quit politics because he foresaw no hope in the reasonably near future of winning a majority that would elect him speaker. Then Agnew was forced to resign after pleading no contest to a criminal charge of tax evasion, and congressional Democrats assured Nixon that no one but Ford could win confirmation. Facing inflamed Democratic majorities in Congress as Watergate metastasized, Nixon had no alternative. He and Ford had worked together since the late 1940s, when they were junior congressmen in the Chowder and Marching Society, a conservative GOP forum and social club, and Nixon viewed him as someone who did what needed doing—as Seymour Hersh wrote, "who placed loyalty to Nixon and the Republican presidency above his personal ambitions and political well being." Little known outside official Washington, Ford was profoundly aware that he was about to become the only man in history to serve as president without having been elected to national office.
From 31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today , by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2006 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.