On August 8, 1974, in a televised address, President Richard Nixon, flanked by his family, announced to the American public that he would step down rather than endure a Senate impeachment trial for obstruction of justice. Since 1972, Nixon had battled increasing vociferous allegations that he knew of and may have authorized a botched burglary in which several men were arrested for attempting to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Between 1972 and 1974, the press, and later a Senate investigation committee, revealed disturbing details that revealed that Nixon had indeed attempted to cover up the crime committed by key members of his administration and reelection committee. The most damning evidence came from the subpoenaed tape recordings of Nixon’s White House conversations. Nixon fought the release of the tapes, which led the House of Representatives in 1973 to initiate impeachment charges against the president for obstruction of justice.
The entire nation was glued to the story as his resignation unfolded. We had not seen anything like this in the 20th century. I was just 14 at the time, but remember the events well. Looking back some 42 years later, I see three lessons from the only presidential resignation in American history.
1. The cover-up is worse than the sin.
This is a principle as old as time. The Old Testament tells us the story of a Nixon-like character. King David was the leader of his nation and he felt a sense of entitlement. One day, he saw what he didn’t have – Bathsheba. It was bad enough that he committed adultery with Bathsheba. But in order to hide his crime, he put her husband on the front lines of battle, knowing this would cost him his life. He would then be free to take Bathsheba as his wife. It didn’t work. Like Nixon, he saw his sins uncovered. God uncovers what man covers.
2. Men are naturally paranoid.
The election of 1972 was a bigger landslide than we have seen in the past ten elections. Nixon defeated Sen. McGovern of South Dakota in a rout. And the race was never in doubt. Yet, Nixon’s administration felt the need to burglarize the Democratic office to dig up dirt, just in case. The Old Testament gives us another example of a Nixon-like character. His name was Elijah. Though a gifted communicator who had experienced the favor of God like no one else, he had his doubts. When things didn’t seem to go his way, he became distracted, desperate, and delusional.
3. Sin comes with a price.
Mr. Nixon was a good Quaker, a very religious man. He did a lot of great things – ending the Vietnam War, opening relations with China. There is a reason he won 49 states in 1972. But he was not above the law. Nixon was allowed to pick his actions, but not his consequences. That may be the greatest lesson from 42 years ago this week.
You can play God. But you will never be God. He gets the final word.