On August 8th 1974 Richard Nixon became the first American president ever to resign from office. His final action was the imminent consequence of more than two years of political controversy, of public displays of discontent towards the media, and ultimately of obvious attempts to minimize and cover up a scandal that, in the end, proved to be fatal for the outcome of his presidential mandate. He would later recall, “This was the nightmarish end of a long dream” (Associated Press, 1999).
His last address to the nation as a standing president must be seen through this perspective and through the lens of the historical circumstances of the time.
The overall perception of the exact purpose of the speech is still debatable, some of his critics accusing him of not giving a resignation speech, but rather a persuasive one. Despite these differences in ideas, one can reach a common ground and the conclusion that Nixon, while making his final official speech, also tried to save a dignifying image for posterity, later on implicitly underlining the importance the judgment of history had for him: “The jury has already come in, and there’s nothing that’s going to change it. There’s no appeal. Historians will judge it harshly.”(Stacks, 1994).
In order to fully grasp the complex message behind the speech delivered by Nixon, certain elements are essential for building a proper image of the historical background of the time. Cristina Schaffner, in citing Christoph Sauer, points out the necessity for analyzing the wider context of the political discourse in order to understand and capture its overall meaning.
She considers that “the analysis of political speeches in particular and political discourses in general should relate linguistic structures to larger contexts of communicative settings and political functions. Any public speech is part of a larger, more extensive communicative process and it is characterized as a strategic move in an overarching communicative plan. It can therefore be assessed properly only if the larger context is taken into account”( Schaffner, 1993, 203).
Richard Nixon was the 37th elected president of the US and had the uphill endeavor of leading his nation through some of the most trying times of its history. Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State would later on acknowledge the fact that “Nixon was the first president, after Theodore Roosevelt, to lead his country’s foreign policy largely in the name of the national interest”(Kissinger, 1995, 636). He admits, as do numerous other experts in external policy, that “the Nixon Administration was given the task of withdrawing the American troops from its first experience of a lost war, and from the first external commitment in which the American moral convictions collided with what was possible to achieve”(Kissinger,1995, 586).
Therefore, the Vietnam War was the major issue of Nixon’s presidency. Another critical issue was that of the US-USSR relations that were in a tight point at the beginning of his term in office in 1969. Intimately connected was the situation with China which proved to be delicate and in demand of a diplomatic resolution. Stacks points out these elements: “By sheer endurance, he was the most important figure of the postwar era.
Nixon put the country through some of its worst times, leading the red-scare politics of the 1950s, escalating the war in Vietnam in order to end it, trying with all his enormous energy and guile to defeat the legal processes that closed in on him during the Watergate scandal”(Stacks, 1994). Thus, it not the conduct of the foreign policy that brought his resignation, but rather his continuous conflicts with the Congress, that is the dispute between the Executive and the Legislative. All these aspects of the political reality are dealt with, some more than others, in his final speech.
Depending on his motivation, Nixon targeted more than one audience in his speech. Smith argues that “understanding the American audience in terms of the issues it holds dear, the positions it takes on those issues and the way it measures character is crucial to crafting speeches that resonate with the public. Furthermore, due to the modern media, the president often addresses more than one audience at a time” (Smith, 2006).
It was expected of him to start with the most pressing development of internal politics, which was the Watergate scandal. His political career had been stained by the possibility of being accused of obstructing justice procedures and abuse of power, yet his considerations on the matter were rather reluctant and until the final end, set for denial of all evidence shown to him in this respect (Impeachment, 2006). It was only after the irrefutable proof of taped conversations demonstrating his implication in the scandal that he tacitly admitted his guilt and acted on his resignation (Legacy: Richard M. Nixon, 37th president, 2006).
Stacks even comments on the idea, calling the attention to the fact that “no other President in American history had been revealed to be so cynically, so selfishly breaking the law to preserve his own power. Other Presidents may have acted as ignobly, but none was caught so nakedly” (Stacks, 1994). Nixon’s mentioning of the scandal in the speech was quite lapidary, the term “Watergate” only being used twice throughout the text. It is therefore clear to say that he attempted to underplay its importance and to change the focus of the attention towards other aspects of his political actions.
Within this line of argumentation, Nixon tried to appeal to the general public. He made use of personal references, by mentioning that “my family unanimously urged me to do so (to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved)”( Scholing, 2003) structuring his address on the need to reach out to the American people and thus offer them a certain justification of his actions, which he even stresses were carried out as “to do what was best for the nation”. Therefore, one of the aims of the speech was to attract the sense of public acceptance and along with this, a closure of the chapter.
Throughout his speech though, he created for himself a number of different occasions to address the general public, the electorate and subsequently those who decide in a democratic system. One such occasion was the referral to the possibilities of the American people “to have not only the blessings of liberty but also the means to live full and good, and by the world’s standards even abundant lives”( Scholing, 2003). Such political rhetoric could only have pointed to the important achievements his administration had registered, although he did mention the inflation problems facing the society.
Even so, he managed to draw the attention on the wellbeing of the nation by similar comparisons with the rest of the world. In justifying the wide media and public attention that the Watergate scandal had received, and, at the same time, in supporting Nixon’s confidence in the internal and external US position, Walter McDougall, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “the American people could afford to obsess continuously over this affair and paralyze the nation…the American people wouldn’t have put up with that if they had thought the country was in danger”(Anderson, 2004).
Nixon pointed out the successes of his administration in relation to the main international actors such as the USSR, China and the players in the Middle East. Even though, in general, the American public is less interested in foreign affairs and more in domestic issues, the Vietnam War and the broader context that determined its final outcome had provoked great unrest among regular Americans, and had created a rift in the society. Therefore, when invoking the fact that “we have ended America’s longest war” (Scholing, 2003) he also tried to offer a sense of reassurance that would, in the long run, help heal the wounds of the nation.
A well delimited part of the speech was aimed at underlining the distinctiveness between “I” and “Congressional and other leaders”. While addressing the public, he tried to make a clear delimitation between what the public might consider “good” such as himself, and “evil” such as those in search of his indictment. He strongly stressed the lack of Congressional support in his strive to uphold what he considered to be “the constitutional purpose”. There were even opinions that considered Nixon to have “acknowledged his lonely isolation in his televised resignation speech” (Anderson, 2004).
Therefore he subtly lets himself to be portrayed as the less eager to continue the battle with the Congress, fact that had an opposite effect on the elective body. By mentioning his lack of further action for the purpose of revenge, as he would not “continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication” (Scholing, 2003), he skillfully managed to sow the seed of doubt in the public’s mind over the real reasons for the Congress’ actions. Furthermore, he would appear in the eyes of the public as the one that appealed to a common and acceptable solution on behalf of both parties. Therefore, it could be said that, in the public view, he managed to partially save a certain political dignity.
The presentation of the new president was, from a strictly political perspective, an electoral maneuver. Its placement after the subtle “attack” of the Congress insured the transfer of the political support he enjoyed among his own traditional electorate. His reaffirmed trust in Ford’s capabilities was also meant to lie to rest any uncertainties in the future course of policy. It is rather obvious that, following that passage, the continuous and vigorous call for mobilization to take further the actions started by his administration, Nixon attempted to give an additional level of credibility to all that was previously said. His determination and explicit support for his successor was designed as a display of confidence and conviction in his arguments that, among others, motivated his innocence in the Watergate scandal.
Taking into consideration the concurring factors that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon, it can be concluded that his final speech addressed exactly the variety of these issues. Summing up the pulse of the era, McDougall considers that “even Watergate will some day be put in a larger context and will be seen as the most dramatic episode in a rebellion by Congress and the courts against executive power” (Anderson, 2004). In addressing the American people, he tried both to justify his actions and to subtly state the difference of opinion with the Congress.
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“Legacy: Richard M. Nixon, 37th president”. 2006. 14 Mar. 2006.
Schaffner, Cristina. “Political speeches and discourse analysis”. Current issues in language and society. 1996: 203. 14 Mar. 2006.
Scholing, Peter. “Richard Milhous Nixon. Resignation Speech, August 8, 1974”.
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Smith, Craig R. “Speechwriting in the Nixon and Ford White Houses”. California State University. 14 Mar. 2006;http://www.csulb.edu/~crsmith/nixford.html;
Stacks, John F. “Victory In Defeat”. Time. 2 May, 1994.