It was a seminal moment in United States history: a sitting president, steeped in controversy, on the verge of impeachment, resigning in front of his country on live television, and then departing from the White House the next day in disgrace.
That was the scene 40 years ago this week, as President Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the U.S., departed his residence, strode to Marine One, saluted, and disappeared into the helicopter.
Most Americans thought it would be a moment they would never see. Some can scarcely believe it happened. Many suggest that the country has never fully recovered from that day of Aug. 9, 1974.
It was a day that changed forever how Americans would look at those who govern their country.
Embroiled in the Watergate crisis – the break-in of the National Democratic offices in the Watergate complex during the 1972 presidential campaign – Nixon finally acceded to the wishes of Congress, and much of the nation, to step down so the healing could begin. First denying knowledge of the break-in, and then covering it up and working to contain its political damage, Nixon’s presidency could no longer take the hits.
Hudson County politicians and residents shared their memories of that historic time.
For a young speech writer and legislative analyst working for the Hawaiian delegation on Capitol Hill for only seven months, it was quite a time to be in Washington, DC.
Jack Butchko of Bayonne, now 61, remembers the days leading up to and the resignation day itself with crystal clarity.
“It was a regular day, so to speak,” Butchko said. That is, until the three television networks began reporting news of the impending resignation.
“Everyone in Washington stopped to watch the speech he gave.”
Butchko said the resignation was not a surprise to him. The Watergate break-in and resulting investigations had been ongoing for months. In April, Butchko had had a chance meeting with an aide to legislator John Rhodes.
“He told me, he’s going to resign; he’s going to resign during summer,” he recalled.
Butchko said the president’s speech and decision helped Washington move forward from an immobility that existed for much of two years.
“In 1973 and ’74, the scandal had brought government to a screeching halt. The House, the Senate, and even the cabinet members were unable to get anything done,” Butchko said. “That whole impeachment process took up everybody’s time. And the press wouldn’t let it die. Everybody just tried to turn everything into ‘What did it mean to the survival of the Nixon administration?’”
Butchko said the scandal affected the way he worked in politics.
“If anything it redoubled my efforts to be committed to bring good government to the people in whatever capacity I served,” he said. “It certainly showed the way that should be avoided.”
Announced at Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Meanwhile, Bayonne resident Donald Baran remembers hearing the news of the president’s resignation like it was yesterday. He was sitting in Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert when he heard the announcement on the public address system.
“There were about 45,000 people and they went crazy,” Baran said. “They didn’t like Nixon.”
Secaucus and Union City
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli doesn’t remember the exact moment of the resignation, but does remember the lessons it taught.
A year out of high school, 17, and not yet interested in politics, Gonnelli feels it nevertheless was a watershed time.
“I think that what happened with Nixon, it sent a message,” he said. “It shows that in our democracy, in the U.S., it clearly shows that no one -- not even the president of the United States -- was above the law. If the president gets impeached, it’s a clear message to any politician.”
Gonnelli said he finds it hard to believe 40 years have passed since arguably one of the greatest scandals in U.S. history. And he thinks the event led to a souring of residents’ faith in their elected officials, something that rears its head time and again, referring to recent municipal scandals in places like Trenton and Secaucus.
“Once corruption is exposed, people lose faith in their government,” he said. “I became mayor in Secaucus because people lost faith in their government here in their town.”
He believes the scandal set the tone for how much – or how little -- people trust their government.
Gonnelli thinks Watergate highlights the fact that politicians should treat those who elect them sincerely and fairly.
“You have to do what’s right. You have to be honest,” he said. “You need to be honest with yourself; you need to be honest with people.”
Secaucus Councilwoman Susan Pirro grew up in and lived in Union City for 28 years, and still works for the Union City Board of Education.
Like her mayor, she can’t believe the amount of time that’s passed since Nixon’s resignation.
“I remember getting home and I remember watching the speech,” Pirro said. “I remember feeling very sorry for him in the position he was in. Not that what he had done was right.”
Like Gonnelli, who was elected to office after the bribery scandal involving then-Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, Pirro can also trace her election at least in part to residents trying to reaffirm their trust in government.
“Nixon’s resignation was kind of like an end of an era,” Pirro said. “It was almost like thinking naively that everybody does the right thing.”
North Bergen Commissioner Frank Gargiulo was at St. Joseph of the Palisades High School in West New York working as a teacher and football coach when he heard the news.
“I don’t remember exactly what I was doing,” he said. “It’s not like the JFK assassination or Cuban Missile Crisis, where you’d remember where you were. It wasn’t that kind of impactful thing. It was a big deal, but people didn’t talk about it that much in this community.”
“I do remember his speech, and watching it on TV,” he said. “I saw him resign.”
Most people are very skeptical of government anyway, Gargiulo said, and things are not that different from 20 years ago, or 200 years ago.
“No one is happy with the federal government, because they feel they can’t get things done,” he said. “Even when things look good, there’s skepticism.”
Nixon’s illegal actions, and resulting resignation, reinforced people’s thoughts that politicians are dishonest, and exposed the down side of government, according to Gargiulo.
“No one has the character to level it off,” he said of restoring the public’s faith. “I don’t think we ever recovered.”
But political lust for power is commonplace.
“Go back to Machiavelli. He would do anything to stay in power,” Gargiulo said. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”
America started its road back with the presidency of Gerald Ford.
“I liked Ford,” Gargiulo said. “He was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time.”
Though he couldn’t tell you where he was that day, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner thinks Nixon’s resignation was necessary, and was one of the few times that members of both parties were in sync on whether a politician should leave office.
“Everyone agreed he was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” Turner said.
Nixon and Watergate claimed an even bigger victim: the American people and their trust.
“It put a spotlight on government and how things work,” Turner said. “Government came under much more intense scrutiny. The people realized the power in government and the abuses that take place.”
“I think it changed the whole fabric of politics.” – Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner
“That was the beginning of government being more complicated,” he said. “People now pay attention to how money is raised in campaigns.”
Nixon’s actions are also the yardstick that all elected officials are judged by to this day, and are one of the reasons that the public is suspicious of government.
“Everything today is compared to the Nixon administration,” Turner said.”That’s the standard for what everybody compares everything to.”
Short term the results were catastrophic for the Republican Party in 1974. Congress went from a Republican to a Democratic majority, according to Turner.
“I think it changed the whole fabric of politics,” he said. “It took years for many to get over it.
Some people never got over it.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.