A Nightmare 25 Years Old

It was 25 years ago that the "long national nightmare" of Watergate came to an end and President Nixon became the first and only U.S. president to resign. CBS News' Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather were there.

On Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard NixonÂ's Chief of Staff Alexander Haig handed his boss a sheet of paper prepared for his signature. "I hereby resign the office of President of the United States," it said. Nixon signed.

Biographers and former White House staffers say Nixon was under a great deal of stress. "He was a man awake during his own nightmare," Henry Kissinger said.

NixonÂ's downfall started with a break-in on June 17, 1972 at National Democratic Headquarters in Washington. The office complex was named Watergate and the burglars were linked to the Nixon re-election campaign.

Over the next two years investigations by Congress and the press pointed to a rash of political espionage operations. Ultimately uncovered was the president's role in trying to cover up the activities.

Facing impeachment, Nixon addressed the American public in a television broadcast on August 8, 1974:

August 8, 1974:
Nixon addresses the nation.


"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.... Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

Defeated, Nixon continued: "I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision."

Declaring "Our long national nightmare is over," Gerald Ford became president on August 9, 1974.

In the quarter-century since that bad dream for the nation and Nixon, many things have been said about Watergate. One is that the system worked; that the cauldron of corruption at the highest level of power stirred a democracyÂ's ability to use law and process to right itself.

Another is that faith in government has never been the same. "We were awakened and became watchful and cynical," says Sam Dash, chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. "We suddenly saw what a president can do."

Watergate also forever changed the relationship between the White House and the press. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told CBS News that reporters "no longer thought they should be working with the government.

"At the time of Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became the new models,"
says Brinkley, "and we now have the investigative reporter who will go after the president and dig up any sources they can get."

Has this more hostile rlationship between the press and the presidency benefited the public?

Brinkley says he's not sure. "I think it's important to have a press that asks those questions. Certainly what Richard Nixon did in office was despicable."

However, he warns, "it can go into a point of excess where the mainstream media will print rumors and innuendo before we have pure facts on it."

Have politicians learned anything from Watergate?

"If Clinton had learned them, he would have admitted to the Lewinsky affair right off the bat," says Brinkley, "or if Ronald Reagan would have learned that, there would have been no Iran-Contra."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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