In a somber mood, President Nixon went before the American people last night to take full responsibility for the Watergate scandal and to pledge that “such abuses” will be “purged” from the American political system.
He declared in a radio-television address to the nation that while he knew nothing of the Watergate break-in until after it happened it would be cowardly for him to place the blame on others.
“There can be no whitewash at the White House,” Mr. Nixon promised in declaring that those who were guilty of criminal acts must “bear the liability and pay the penalty.”
Elliot L. Richardson, his new nominee to be Attorney General, will now have full charge of the case and authority to appoint a special supervising prosecutor if he considers it appropriate, Mr. Nixon said in his 24-minute address broadcast from his Oval Office.
While appearing to be in complete control of himself during the address, Mr. Nixon showed his emotions afterwards by walking unexpectedly into the White House press room. Appearing gray and drawn, he said in a low voice:
“We’ve had our differences in the past, and just continue to give me hell when you think I’m wrong.”
“I hope I’m worthy of your trust,” he said as he shook hands with newsmen and photographers. Visibly shaken, he said of his speech: “It wasn’t easy.”
The President’s address was both a somber confession of failure and an emotional appeal for trust in him and in the office.
In turning over responsibility for future action to Richardson, Mr. Nixon said he had been spending far too much time on the Watergate case in recent weeks and now intends to devote his time to other matters involving the presidency.
“I must now turn my full attention once again to the larger duties of this office,” he said. “I owe it to this great office that I hold, and I owe it to you -- to our country.”
Declaring that he was “appalled” at the “senseless, illegal” break-in, the President pleaded ignorance until six weeks ago of the true proportions of what happened.
He said that he had delegated authority to others during the campaign and concentrated on the presidency, and that the easiest course would be for him to blame those who ran the campaign.
“But that would be a cowardly thing to do,” he said.
“In any organization, the man at the top must bear the responsibility. That responsibility, therefore, belongs here, in this office. I accept it.”
But those who conducted the “sordid affair,” he said, “must, of course, bear the liability and pay the penalty.”
“I want you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that during my terms as President, justice will be pursued fairly, fully and impartially, no matter who is involved.
“This office is a sacred trust and I am determined to be worthy of that trust.”
Mr. Nixon worked on his speech over the weekend and yesterday at Camp David, Md., returning to the White House only an hour before he went on the air.
He was accompanied on the helicopter flight from the Maryland retreat by speechwriter Raymond K. Price and Rose Mary Woods, his personal secretary.
No advance copies of the speech were made available.
Referring to the resignations of his two chief assistants, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, announced before his return from Camp David, the President said they are “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know.”
In accepting their resignations, the President said he meant to leave no implication that they were guilty of wrongdoing.
“But in matters as sensitive as guarding the integrity of the democratic process,” he explained, “it is essential not only that rigorous legal and ethical standards be observed, but also that the public -- you -- have total confidence that they are both being observed and enforced by those in authority, and particularly by the President of the United States.”
Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst resigned because of his close personal and professional relations with some charged with criminal acts, the President said. But he asserted that Kleindienst had “no personal involvement whatsoever” in the Watergate case.
The President had no words of defense for his counsel. John W. Dean III, who was in charge of the original White House investigation of the Watergate case. White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler said earlier that Dean’s resignation had been requested.
The President said he had believed the reports of subordinates, including Dean, that no one in the White House was involved, and he did not accept the newspaper accounts until March, he added.
Mr. Nixon had a word of praise even for the press, as well as for the judicial system. Declaring that the American political system has brought the facts to light, the President said the system included “a determined grand jury, honest prosecutors, a courageous judge -- John Sirica -- and a vigorous free press.”
Without specifying what reforms he had in mind, Mr. Nixon urged political leaders and citizens everywhere “to join in working toward a new set of standards, new rules and procedures, to ensure that future elections will be as nearly free of such abuses as they possibly can be made.”
“We must reform our political process,” he said, “ridding it of . . . inexcusable campaign tactics that have been too often practiced and too readily accepted in the past.”
Suggesting that “inexcusable campaign tactics” are sometimes “a response by one side to the excesses or expected excesses of the other side,” the President said that “two wrongs do not make a right.”
He concluded his address by pleading for support in his struggle for world peace. He almost plaintively asked for confidence in himself.
He told how in January he had given senior aides and Cabinet members a calendar showing the number of days left in term of office.
Looking at his own calendar yesterday morning as he worked on his speech, the President said it showed 1,361 days left and he wanted “these to be the best days in America’s history, because I love America.”
“Tonight I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency,” he said.