Allen's Blog

Nixon’s First Watergate Speech

In my last post, I wrote about the 1973 Watergate hearings that ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, in August 1974. My intention had been to wait until this year’s anniversary of the resignation to continue the story. Then I came across  a series of 4×5 negatives from April 30, 1973 that add a bit of dimension to the story. On that date, in prime time, Nixon addressed the nation in his first televised speech on the subject of Watergate.

Trying to come up with a picture that would capture both the importance of the event and to connect it with the President’s use of television, I decided to make the photos directly from the television set. Remember, in those days there were no VCRs, no TiVo, no way (at least at home) to capture an image from television except to photograph the screen, at a shutter speed slow enough to record the full set of scanning lines at a moment without subject movement. I chose  the 4×5 format, shooting 8 sheets of film, to preserve detail and because a leaf shutter would avoid the problems that happen when you try to photograph a television screen with a focal-plane shutter.

Nixon addressing the nation on the Watergate scandal

Anyway, the image was a success, and it ran big in a subsequent editorial section of The New York Times. But the speech itself was of huge importance — Nixon announced the resignations of his top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, as well as those of the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, John Dean. In the speech, he noted that there were 1,361 days remaining in the second term of his presidency, which he wanted “to be the best days in America’s history.” As it turned out, he didn’t have that that many left as president, and they weren’t the best in the nation’s history.

The speech itself is great reading — he speaks of being “shocked” and “appalled” to learn of the Watergate affair, of being determined “to get to the bottom of the matter, and that the truth should be fully brought out—no matter who was involved.” At various points, the President refers to ‘improper activities’ and ‘shady tactics.’ In fact what’s most interesting in reading the full text of this speech is how easily so much of it could be transposed to other addresses of the presidents, from both parties, who have succeeded Richard Nixon.

Less than a month later, the Senate Watergate hearings began. And as I began to write this, word came that Daniel Schorr, the great CBS News correspondent (and a senior political analyst for NPR for the last 25 years) has died at 93. Besides being one of the original Murrow Boys (in the greatest era of broadcast news), Dan Schorr earned a place on Nixon’s famous “enemies list” for his political reporting.  That list grew from a 1971 memo written by John Dean, addressing “the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”

Some things never change.