Part 3

Nixon resigns

"One year of Watergate is enough," President Nixon declared in his State of the Union address in January 1974. But the embattled president could not put the issue behind him. Special prosecutor Jaworski and the Senate Watergate Committee continued to demand that the White House turn over tapes and transcripts. As public support for Nixon waned, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives began to consider the ultimate sanction for a president--impeachment.

Nixon cast himself as a defender of the presidency. He insisted that he had made mistakes but broke no laws. He said he had no prior knowledge of the burglary and did not know about the cover-up until early 1973. To release the tapes, he said, would harm future chief executives. The pressure on Nixon mounted in March 1974, when the special prosecutor indicted former Attorney General John Mitchell, former aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and four other staffers for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with the Watergate burglary. While the grand jury wanted to indict Nixon himself, Jaworski declined to do so doubting the constitutionality of indicting a sitting president.

Nixon points to the transcripts of the White House tapes during a nationally televised speech on April 29, 1974. Nixon announced that he was making the tapes public and turning over the transcripts to the House impeachment investigators. (AP)

To mollify his critics, Nixon announced in April 1974 the release of 1,200 pages of transcripts of conversations between him and his aides. The conversations, "candid beyond any papers ever made public by a President," in the words of The Post stoked more outrage. Even Nixon's most loyal conservative supporters voiced dismay about profanity-laced discussions in the White House around how to raise blackmail money and avoid perjury.

Nixon's legal defense began to crumble in May when a federal court ruled in favor of Jaworksi's subpoena for the White House tapes. Nixon's lawyers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. His political position faltered in June, amid reports that all 21 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee were prepared to vote for impeachment. On July 24, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered the White House to hand over the tapes to the special prosecutor. Two days later the Judicary Committee approved one article of impeachment to be voted on by the entire House.

When Nixon released the tapes a week later, a June 23, 1972, conversation showed that Nixon had, contrary to repeated claims of innocence, played a leading role in the cover-up from the very start. Dubbed "the smoking gun" tape, this recording eliminated what little remained of Nixon's support. Even his closest aides told him he had to resign or face the almost certain prospect of impeachment.

On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced his resignation. "By taking this action," he said in a subdued yet dramatic television address from the Oval Office, "I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America." In a rare admission of error, Nixon said: "I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision." In a final speech to the White House staff, a teary-eyed Nixon told his audience, "Those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

VIDEO | Nixon announces his resignation.

Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn into office on Aug. 9, 1974, declaring "our long national nightmare is over." One month later, Ford granted Nixon a "full, free and absolute pardon" for all crimes that Nixon "committed or may have committed" during his time in the White House.

The Watergate affair was over, but its influence was not. The interlinked scandals generated a new and enduring skepticism about the federal government in American public opinion. The lingo of the scandal--"to cover-up," to "stonewall," and "to leak"--became part of the American political vocabulary. The newly assertive Congress passed campaign finance reform legislation and probed abuses of power at the CIA and other national security agencies. Woodward and Bernstein's reporting, recounted in a best-selling book, All the President's Men, and a hit movie infused American journalism with a new adversarial edge. Before long, the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate allegations of presidential wrongdoing became the norm in Washington. Watergate had changed American politics permanently and profoundly.