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The president resigns

Aug 8, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Seeds of significant change were being sown 40 years ago today

Forty years ago on this date, the President of the United States quit.

Mired irretrievably in the Watergate scandal, Richard Milhous Nixon had reached the end of the line. Irascible, irrational, vindictive and cornered, he also was a sharp and experienced political operator who recognized when the jig was up.

"I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow," said Nixon to a national television audience on Aug. 8, 1974.

It was the central moment of a spectacular political meltdown the likes of which had not been seen before and has not been seen since. The president resigned. The president.

Four decades on, among the many precepts taken from that August Thursday is a simple one: times change, both short term and long.

In 1974, Nixon was less than two years removed from an apex of presidential affirmation that by one standard has never been matched. He had won re-election by the biggest margin of victory in U.S. history, finishing 18 million votes ahead of his opponent. He won 49 states and 520 electoral votes, collecting 61 percent of the popular vote.

That year, Democrats would add to their already immense majority in both houses of Congress, taking a 291-144 lead in the House and a 61-38 lead in the Senate (one seat was vacant, and one Independent senator caucused with the Democrats).

On the Senate's special Watergate investigative committee, one of the chairmen was a Republican, Howard Baker, and he was as aggressive as anyone on that panel in uncovering the crimes of the president and his administration.

In the House Judiciary Committee, which passed two articles of impeachment against Nixon a week before he resigned, there was bipartisan support, with six of the committee's 17 Republicans voting against the president.

And in 1974, the power of American newspapers was never more evident, most famously in the form of two young reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, who was 29 when he wrote his first Watergate story, and Carl Bernstein, who was 28 when the story broke. Other reporters and editors on that paper were crucial players in the story as well, and the New York Times actually may have provided even more coverage than did the Post.

Things are different now.

Less than two years after his landslide, Nixon fled the White House in shame, barely escaping criminal prosecution thanks to a controversial pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford.

Twenty years later, Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and as of Jan. 1, 2015, Republicans will have held it for 16 of the past 20 years, with no prospect of that changing in the decade ahead.

Less than 10 years after Nixon left, Republicans took control of the Senate, and it has been a seesaw tussle ever since, including one 50-50 tie.

Nixon's landslide was huge, but lopsided presidential elections were commonplace at the time. Of the 15 presidential elections backward from 1972, 10 were dominating victories. There has only been one true landslide presidential election since Nixon, Reagan in 1984.

Today, the notion that a significant number of Republicans would break ranks in the committee process and vote with the Democrats on a major issue is laughable. It might be marginally less so on the Democratic side, but barely. Bipartisanship has all but disappeared.

As for the newspapers, well, the Washington Post and New York Times are still publishing, but the Post is now owned by an Internet billionaire, and the Times has liquidated huge asset after huge asset to keep food on the table. In 1970 there were nearly 1,800 daily papers in the United States. Today there are about 1,350 -- many of them still strong, all of them less influential, and many others struggling to reach an audience that perceives less and less difference between journalism and gossip, between news and hearsay, and between verification and assertion. Today, the media "enemies list" that Nixon was ridiculed for compiling might well be seen as perfectly reasonable by an American public which puts less and less stock in the value of varied points of view. That's a lot of change in 40 years. How much of it can be linked to Nixon, developments of Watergate, and their aftermath? It might take another 40 years to be sure, but some fateful seeds were being sown on Aug. 8, 1974.

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