War Stories

I Was There for Nixon’s Last State of the Union

This feels very different.

President Richard Nixon delivers his State of the Union in Washington in January 1974.
President Richard Nixon delivers his State of the Union in Washington in January 1974.
AP Photo

I was at Richard Nixon’s final State of the Union address.

I was 19, a sophomore at Oberlin College, spending the January term as an intern for Jonathan Bingham, a Democratic congressman from New York, and I drew the lucky straw for the office’s extra pass to watch the speech from the House gallery.

It was a tense, raucous scene. It was Jan. 30, 1974, and Washington was in the heady throes of breakdown—a special prosecutor was probing the Watergate crimes, the House was mulling impeachment—and the drama was playing out right before me. On the Republican side of the aisle, scores of Nixon loyalists rose to applaud, sometimes cheer, dozens of times in the course of his speech. On the Democratic side, nobody so much as politely clapped, even once, not even when Nixon lauded his achievements in nuclear arms control, environmental protection, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Bella Abzug, the firebrand feminist, and Liz Holtzman, her 31-year-old colleague—both from New York, two of the mere 16 women in the House (there were no female senators)—sat in a back row chatting, sometimes audibly, nonstop. I was thrilled.

You literally had to be there to sense this spectacle. In those days, at such events, the TV cameras focused almost solely on the president on the podium, cutting away to the lawmakers in the chamber only briefly and, even then, never to highlight discordance, lest the networks be accused of dishing commentary on a sacred ceremony.

Nixon referred to “the so-called Watergate affair” for only a minute toward the end of the speech. I don’t remember what he said, but according to the transcript, he noted that he’d given the special prosecutor “all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations,” adding, “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.”

Trump may take a moment in his speech tonight to call for an end to Robert Mueller’s investigations. A Republican wag tweeted Tuesday morning that a line in the draft of Trump’s address reads, “One year of Russiagate is enough.”

I assume that’s a joke, but it’s worth noting that, just one week after Nixon’s speech, the House authorized its Judiciary Committee to begin looking into impeachment. Less than a month later, on March 1, 1974, the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, named Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in charges against seven former White House aides. On May 9, the House Judiciary Committee opened impeachment hearings. By July 30, it indicted Nixon for obstructing justice, abuse of power, and failing to comply with a House subpoena. On Aug. 5, investigators released the “smoking gun” tape, in which Nixon can be heard ordering his aides to cover up the Watergate break-in. On Aug. 7, the 11 Republicans who’d voted against impeachment said they would change their votes. On Aug. 8, Nixon announced that he would leave office the next day.

There are many differences between 1974 and 2018. Back then, the Democrats enjoyed preponderant majorities in the House and the Senate. Now, the Republicans own both houses. Back then, in the end, three Republican leaders came to the Oval Office and told Nixon he had to leave. Now the GOP leaders are not only resisting Mueller’s investigation but opening their own investigations into Mueller and the FBI. Back then, Nixon was felled by his own words on his own secret tapes. (Jaworski had subpoenaed the tapes on April 16, 1974, and the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the order on July 24.) Trump has clearly ordered a cover-up of whatever his involvement in “Russia-gate” might be, but there’s no evidence of any secret tapes—yet. (Will the wires possibly worn by George Papadopoulos and others spark similar revelations?)

At the end of his State of the Union address, Nixon said, “I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States.” And yet, seven months later, he did.

As we watch Trump’s State of the Union address tonight, two inferences can be drawn from this comparative history.

First, Trump and the Republicans are trying to wave the investigations away, as Nixon did, but at this time in 1974, the probes were just beginning to take off, and when they did, the fall came swiftly.

But second, Trump controls the political balance, and he commands even sterner loyalty from his party’s leaders than Nixon did. Nothing is likely to happen until the midterm elections in November—and then only if voters tilt the balance. Nixon was dethroned from the top. That isn’t likely to happen to Trump as long as the current Republicans remain in charge of Congress.