“The Constitution works.”
With those words, Gerald Rudolph Ford began his remarks to a stunned nation as he became the 38th president of the United States a mere moments after his predecessor, Richard Nixon, resigned and flew off to California.
It all happened 39 years ago on Aug. 9, 1974 and it marks the end of one of the darkest chapters in American history. It wasn’t that many people died in a bloody conflict, or that troops took to the streets. It simply darkened because of a constitutional crisis that began June 17, 1972 with what was called a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C.
President Nixon sought to fend off the critics who began alleging a cover-up in the aftermath of the burglary. Congressional hearings in both the House and Senate would reveal ultimately that the president was involved in seeking to block the investigation of the break-in. And then, on Aug. 8, 1974, the day before he left the presidency, Richard Nixon told a weary nation of his intention to quit.
How did it play in the Texas Panhandle? Well, I wasn’t living here at the time, but I did look up some election data that I found interesting. It also perhaps explains that many folks in this part of the country would have wanted the president to fight on, as Nixon said he would have preferred to do.
In the 1972 campaign, which saw Nixon re-elected by an overwhelming 23-percent margin over Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern, the president did very well indeed in this part of the nation.
Potter County voters gave the president nearly 75 percent of their vote; Randall County voted 83 percent in favor of the president; and Ochiltree County went for Nixon with nearly 90 percent of their vote.
Nixon wanted to stay. He wanted to fight on and finish the term to which he had been re-elected. It all came crashing down on him when Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., the founder of the modern conservative movement, told Nixon that the president’s support in the Senate had vanished. The House Judiciary Committee had recommended impeachment by the full House. Had it gone to trial in the Senate, as prescribed by the Constitution, Nixon would have been finished, Goldwater told the president.
With that bit of news, Nixon realized he couldn’t stay.
He spoke to the nation, and then he was gone. There was no gunfire, or bloodshed. The transition from one president to another was somber and orderly.
And it showed just how well the Constitution works.