Forty-five seconds after 9 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1974, Richard Nixon faced the red light that would put a stop to life as he knew it — the light on the TV camera pointed at his White House desk. Fifteen minutes earlier, he had been a sobbing ”basket case,” according to one witness, but when the light went on, a dry-eyed Nixon calmly told 110 million Americans, ”I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” Outside the White House, cheers erupted from a crowd huddled around portable TVs that dotted nearby Lafayette Park like campfires. ”This is more fun than the inauguration,” said a hippie. ”Then, you had to get a ticket.”
Nixon knew better than anyone that TV had become the real ticket to American power; it is particularly ironic that the televised Watergate hearings were what undid him. His resignation was one of the most-watched political speeches ever. It outdid his own record-setting 1960 debates with JFK, which in turn bested the tally for Nixon’s ”Checkers speech,” which had foiled an attempt to dump him as Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican running mate in 1952.
Then, Nixon was accused of misusing funds. He was innocent, but few believed him — what saved him was his dazzling use of the new medium. ”[W]hen he went onto the TV screen in 1952, he was hunted and alone,” wrote historian Garry Wills, author of Nixon Agonistes. ”For the first time, people saw a living political drama on their TV sets — a man fighting for his whole career and future.” Republican power brokers had planned to sack Nixon unless the speech got an unheard-of 90 percent positive mail response. The letters ran 350-to-1 in Nixon’s favor.
But in 1960, TV turned against him -his ragged emotions and 5 o’clock shadow were less telegenic than JFK’s cool, clean movie-star act, and his political ideals seemed faked. Nixon learned from defeat: To resign, he wore makeup to dry his famously sweaty upper lip and a lightweight suit to counter the hot lights.
Nixon’s last act as President was to order TV coverage of his formal leave-taking on Aug. 9. ”Oh, Dick, you can’t have it televised!” cried wife Pat. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, later wrote that he was ”outraged.” But Nixon was determined to go out as he came in: on camera. ”That’s the way it has to be,” he sternly told his wife, TV is ”what it’s all about.”
Aug. 8, 1974
The No. 1 nonfiction book was Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, while the Barbra Streisand comedy For Pete’s Sake packed movie houses. John Denver’s ”Annie’s Song” was the top tune, M*A*S*H the No. 1 show.