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Commentary: With Nixon's Resignation, an Era of Division Began

Forty years ago, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon appeared on national television to announce that the following day he would resign, the first and so far the only American president to do so. For those of us who were around back then, it was an unforgettable experience, which was greeted with relief, mostly, because the long ordeal of what came to be known as the Watergate Affair had sapped the energy and patience of the nation.On that night, I wasn’t in front of the television like most people. Instead, as a young Courier-Journal reporter, I had been sent out on a story (the content of which I’ve long forgotten) to be reported from a church in Louisville's West End. It was a sultry night, typical for August, and the air was heavy with the smells of our city — tobacco, sour mash, diesel from the railroad station and river water. In those days, not so many people had air-conditioned cars; I can remember driving on Broadway with windows open, listening to the news on the radio about the events going on in Washington. At the meeting, people were more interested in their issue (whatever it was) than in the historic events unfolding in the White House. Or perhaps they reflected the general national mood that we needed to move on from the morass that the Nixon presidency had become. In any case, I made a hasty exit when the meeting ended, raced back to the newspaper to type my story, and hurried home to watch television—and to see the speech replayed, as it would be again and again for the next 40 years. (You can watch it here.) The following day, the soon-to-be-former president gave a maudlin, teary farewell speech to his staff in the East Room. It was embarrassing to watch, especially because there had been such moments of glory and majesty in the Nixon presidency. It was Nixon, after all, who had opened the long-closed door to China. He presided over the end of the war in Vietnam, a necessary conclusion whatever its results and consequences. He advanced important legislation on civil rights, environmental stewardship and urban affairs. His diplomacy, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, paved the way for better relations with the Soviet Union. He also helped create the current divisions we have in this country by pursuing the Republican Party’s Southern strategy, a polite phrase for using race as an issue to lure old-line segregationist Democrats and to transform the scenery of American political life. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book, "Nixonland," charted this transformation.  Mr. Perlstein this week has published a sequel, "The Invisible Bridge" (Simon & Schuster, 880 pp., $35), which I have yet to read; it covers the Nixon resignation and the transformation of the GOP with the rise of Ronald Reagan. I encourage those who hope to understand the 1970s to read these books; for those of us who lived through them, they will provide new understanding. A cold front pushed through the Ohio Valley on the night of Aug. 8, and the 9t was fresh and cool. It seemed to herald a new era, and the entrance of the new president, Gerald R. Ford, was, as he said, symbolic that our “long national nightmare” was over. There was much to like about the new chief executive. He had a sophisticated, outspoken wife, Betty Ford, who would become a symbol of feminism. He had four attractive kids, who seemed pretty much like people down the street. On his first day as president, Ford went down to the kitchen of their Northern Virginia home and toasted his own English muffin for breakfast.

 I recently drove to the Gerald Ford Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where the 38th president grew up and which he represented for many years in the U.S. Congress. Of the presidential libraries this one may be the most modest other than Herbert Hoover’s in West Branch, Iowa. But it also is fascinating, especially because it relies so much on video and audio recordings to recreate the tumultuous mid-1970s in America. Of course, Mr. Ford’s initial honeymoon didn’t last long. A month after he took office, his decision to grant President Nixon a full pardon left a lasting bitterness among many who felt that justice wasn’t being served. In retrospect, I think he took the courageous course, because it spared the nation the ordeal of seeing its former president in court, and more than likely, serving time in prison. And for this, Mr. Ford paid a great price—he was narrowly defeated in the 1976 election by Jimmy Carter, and the pardon was a major issue in that campaign. I was very proud to be a part of the media during this time. The reflected glory of reporters like The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward illuminated many of us in the hinterlands. At The Courier-Journal, we had a young new publisher and managing editor who were interested in advancing the work of investigative journalism. TV news in Louisville was at its best with aggressive reporting teams at WHAS, WAVE, and, increasingly, WLKY. Louisville public radio came into its own during the Watergate era with NPR’s live, gavel-to-gavel broadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings, and, at roughly the same time, with the debut of “All Things Considered,” which put the hearings into perspective. Likewise, PBS took a giant step forward with the nightly rebroadcasts of the hearings, hosted by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer—from which would come the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour." Among my best memories of that period occurred just before Derby Weekend 1974. That year marked the 100th running of the race, and Louisville had just come through a devastating tornado a few weeks earlier. On April 29, President Nixon released transcripts of the famous tapes that had been secretly recorded in the Oval Office and provided the “smoking gun” that led to resignation a few months later. Our managing editor, George Gill, decided that The Courier-Journal would be among the first newspapers in America to publish those transcripts in full—on the Sunday after Derby, when our readership was at its highest. To do this, he had our Washington reporter buy an airplane ticket for the box of binders containing the tapes, and I was asked to drive out to Standiford Field to the Eastern Airlines counter, where the transcripts, having flown from Washington to Louisville in a seat like a traveler, were handed over to me. In an era of Deep Throat, secret assignations between reporters and sources, and so forth, it provided what seemed like a moment of sculduggery for this young newsman. All of us were swept up in the details of the story, and each character became someone whose names and backgrounds we name to know. My colleague Howard Fineman and I stacked our copies of The Washington Post and The New York Times on the floor between our desks in The Courier-Journal newsroom, and we kept them there, the pile growing higher by the day, throughout the hearings, the impeachment proceedings and the resignation. Howard, by the way, soon moved on to the national stage at Newsweek and now at The Huffington Post, where he is editorial director. As we mark four decades of the post-Watergate era, one has to feel a bit of sadness for the era that ended when Richard Nixon got into that helicopter, raised his arms in a final "V for victory" and flew west to his exile in San Clemente, California. In the years since, the partisan strife in America has grown worse with each decade. Congressional investigations have greeted every president since, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. The “I” word (impeachment) is used too often, most recently with President Obama. Although there has been much racial progress, there continues to be a lasting stench from the Southern Strategy that Mr. Nixon and his advisers exploited so cravenly. Compromise in Washington of the sort that produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is simply unheard of. Congress cannot even reach compromise to improve the plight of immigrant children from Latin America. Despite moments of hope, the general mood of the nation has been generally desultory since 1974, and I don’t think that has been good for any of us. So we mark this anniversary not with celebration but with circumspection. Our long national nightmare may have ended on Aug. 9, 1974, but many more very bad dreams were yet to come. Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.