The Black and White Resignation of Richard Nixon

U.S. President Richard Nixon at a news conference in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1969. (AP Photo)
U.S. President Richard Nixon at a news conference in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1969. (AP Photo)

Forty years ago this Friday, President Richard Nixon resigned... in black and white.

At least, he did in my house in Don Draper's old stomping grounds of Chilmark, on a small, fuzzy black and white TV set that we propped up on the big living room windowsill. We actually had a color TV down in the family room -- it was where I saw the Mets win the '69 World Series and hippies get beat up by cops in '68 (I still root for the hippies, even as I abandoned the Mets years ago) -- but it hadn't worked for a couple of years, as my parents were either too stretched for cash or too preoccupied with the Updikian suburban angst of the early 1970s to fix it.

1974 was like that. It was the most apocalyptic year I have ever lived through. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the Watergate scandal and the looming implosion of the 37th American presidency was something of a dark abyss, just like the Sunday about nine months earlier when my dad and I drove into the center of Briarcliff Manor and sat, about 20th or so, in a long line of cars desperate for just a few gallons of gasoline. No one knew what was on the other side of the precipice. I was only 15 and the America I'd been born into -- the nation that my grade-school textbook depicted as a friendly beat cop, "the world's policeman" -- was now broken and for a time seemed no closer to the cosmic repair shop than our white-elephant color TV downstairs.

But the resignation of Richard Nixon on the night of Aug. 8, 1974, promised to change everything. In my liberal-leaning house, the event was treated as a kind of national holiday, even though my dad was away at a business meeting. Some family friends came by and we started at that small flickering set for hours -- even though Nixon's actual address was just a few minutes. It came and went and then David Brinkley and John Chancellor pontificated and the finally the grown-ups left -- but I still couldn't go to sleep.

When TV ran out of commentary sometime out of midnight, they aired a longish retrospective on Nixon's political career. I finally forced myself to go to bed around 2 AM, after the Star-Spangled Banner gave way to Channel 4's overnight test pattern. I didn't want that night to ever end. Even then, I'd realized that what I had been watching was actually Nixon's obituary, that in the still-loud reverberations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, someone had assembled this B-roll biography just in case a "lone nut" with a gun took down RMN, too. That's how people thought back in 1974.

But nobody died. It felt like a rebirth, for America. A progressive that I follow on the Internet has since branded herself "Watergate Summer" -- a homage what our lost generation remembers as a season of salty sea air and fading Kodachrome memories, with a humid thunderclap of optimism. The black-and-white TV on the windowsill was blurred, but suddenly the big picture looked clear. Segregation was dead -- now, tomorrow, and forever -- and blacks were voting and electing mayors in a string of big cities. Young American men were no longer coming home in body bags from Vietnam. The abuses of the president and all his men -- break-ins, buggings and cover-ups that both symbolized and epitomized an American reign of error marked by CIA assassinations and FBI spying on law-abiding Americans -- had ended not in tyranny, but justice. In the months that followed, America opened the books on many of our worst excesses, even probed the Kennedy and King assassinations.

And then America's moment of seeming clarity was over just as quickly as it arrived. Much of it had been an illusion. Nixon's resignation was not an unconditional surrender of America's darkest forces but the beginning of an uneasy cease-fire, one that would be frequently breached. The tumultuous events of the 1960s and early 1970s brought not resolution but division. Liberals who foolishly thought they'd won on August 8, 1974, have spent most of the last 40 years on the defensive, failed by stubborn hubris as Vietnam became Iraq, as B-52s became drones, as segregation became the mass incarceration of young American blacks, as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI became the NSA of Dick Cheney...and Barack Obama.

Conservatives rode out the floods of Watergate -- if you want the 800-page explanation of how that happened, please read the remarkable Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge about the rise of Ronald Reagan in the mid-1970s -- and have been looking since then to land their ark on a lost mountaintop of American exceptionalism, 19th Century science, and pararacial politics. Meanwhile, our arc -- Dr. King's moral arc of the universe, once teed up to bend toward justice -- has flatlined.

The picture that balmy night was a lot fuzzier than we remember it. Watergate proved, for sure, that no man is above the law, not even the president -- and that's good. But the moral laws are much, much bigger than one man, even our President Nixon, and the struggle to get things right was a lot bigger than just one night -- even the most magical, sleepless night of Watergate Summer. It just took a while to learn our old TV set was the only thing about August 8, 1974, that was truly black and white.