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45 Years Since Nixon Resigned

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Forty-five years ago today, Richard Nixon went before the nation and announced that he was resigning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first.

MARTIN: The next day, Gerald Ford would be sworn in as the first unelected president of the United States. The history of the Nixon resignation is our topic this week for our regular segment Ask Cokie, which is when we ask commentator Cokie Roberts to help us understand politics and government - how everything works together and sometimes, it doesn't. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's think about that day 45 years ago. Our first listener wants background, wants to know how all of this happened.

CYNTHIA DOLAN: Cynthia Dolan (ph), Charleston, S.C. What was the turning point for Nixon to resign?

ROBERTS: Well, the pressure on the president had been building. And at the end of July, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes he had made in the Oval Office, and the House Judiciary Committee had voted articles of impeachment.

But the clincher came on August 7, when the grand, old man of the Senate, Barry Goldwater, and the Republican leaders of both houses of Congress went to the White House and told Nixon that he had lost the support of Congress and would be impeached.

MARTIN: A couple listeners want to know how much Republican support there was for Nixon in the House and the Senate.

ROBERTS: Well, a couple of days before the leaders went to Nixon, the so-called smoking gun tape became public. And it revealed that Nixon was personally deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up.

At that point, his congressional support just crumbled. Senate Leader Scott told him he didn't have more than 12 to 15 supporters left. And House Leader Rhodes said it was just as bad on his side of the Capitol. In the judiciary committee, six Republicans had voted against Nixon, some of them from districts he carried handily.

MARTIN: Our next listener is curious about those very leaders.

TERRY ESTES: Hi, my name is Terry Estes, and I'm calling from San Marcos, Texas. Who were the leaders in the House of Representatives for both parties? What type of working relationship did they have with Nixon and with each other?

ROBERTS: Well, John Rhodes of Arizona, who we just talked about, was the fairly new Republican leader, having replaced Gerry Ford when he became vice president. And Carl Albert of Oklahoma was the Democratic speaker.

Just to show you, Rachel, how Byzantine everything in Washington was at that point, there had been a group of Democrats who wanted to delay Ford's confirmation as vice president, speed up impeachment so Nixon would leave without a vice president. Albert would then become president. He didn't go along with it, and he insisted on a fair impeachment process. But he did keep a memo on his papers outlining what he would do if he became president.

MARTIN: Of course, Gerald Ford did get the vice president's job. Our next listener wants to know how that happened. His name is Ron Feiertag, and he writes as follows. Who, other than Ford, was seriously considered to become vice president when Agnew resigned?

ROBERTS: Well, Nixon wanted to name his Treasury Secretary John Connally, the former governor of Texas. But Connally was a former Democrat who had turned on the party. So the Congress was never going to confirm him, as the 25th Amendment requires.

Nixon asked the Republican leaders of each house to come up with a list. They submitted Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller and Connally. But the Democratic leaders told the president Ford was the man they would confirm. So Ford it was, though Nixon told his vice president that he planned to campaign against him for his friend Connally in '76. Connally did run in '80 - lost spectacularly.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thank you.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.