By DAVID SKOLNICK
Acknowledging he’d lost too much support
in Congress, President
Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation on television for the last time Aug. 8, 1974,
announcing: “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
Forty years later, those in the Mahoning Valley who lived through the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s unprecedented resignation as president, reflect on the historic events.
“It was hard to be a Republican,” said William Wade, a Youngstown 5th Ward councilman at the time who would become county GOP chairman in 1976 and serve until 1979.
“The president, no doubt, screwed up and paid the price. He bit the bullet, but the party survived. It was pretty difficult to defend someone who did the crime. It impacted the national party. It did not attract Democrats to the Republican Party.”
James J. Pirko of McKinley Heights, a commercial real
estate agent, said he grew up as a conservative Republican. But when it became evident that Nixon, a Republican, attempted to cover up the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex after it occurred, Pirko said, “My eyes were opened, and it made me rethink everything.”
Pirko said it took him a long time to “face reality” because he admired Nixon, particularly for how he dealt with the Soviet Union.
“I was a holdout for a while and said, ‘It isn’t so,’” Pirko said. “When the facts became abundantly clear, I realized I was being duped and I was rooting for the wrong team. I was an impressionable young high school student. Watergate was an epiphany for me.”
Despite the Mahoning Valley’s deep Democratic roots, Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern in Mahoning and Trumbull counties — and nearly everywhere else — in the 1972 presidential election. The only other Republican to win the two counties in a presidential race in at least 80 years was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 with Nixon as his running mate.
Nixon was a popular figure in the Mahoning Valley when he ran for re-election in 1972.
He visited the Valley on Oct. 28, 1972, just days before that year’s Nov. 7 general election. He took an 82-mile motorcade drive from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to the then-Youngstown Municipal Airport, now the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, in Vienna. About 15,000 people came to see him in Warren, where he made brief remarks, with 10,000 to see him at the airport, where he didn’t make a formal statement, according to an article by Clingan Jackson, The Vindicator’s then-political editor.
For the past 20 years, visits from presidential candidates and incumbents have been common, but Nixon was the first sitting president to come to the area since Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1940.
Also, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s longtime personal secretary who contended she inadvertently erased 181⁄2 minutes of a key recording that could have shed light on whether Nixon knew about the break-in, was born and raised in Sebring — in a Democratic household — and spent the last 30 years of her life in Northeast Ohio, dying in an Alliance nursing home in 2005.
While popular in the Valley in the 1972 election, Nixon was under fire shortly thereafter and resigned Aug. 9, 1974, saying in his televised speech the day before that “I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to” remain in office.
During the Aug. 8, 1974, speech, Nixon didn’t clearly apologize. The closest he came was when he said, “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”
When Nixon resigned, William Binning led local
Young Republicans. He would later be Mahoning County Republican Party chairman from 1980 to 1988 and head the
Youngstown State University political science department.
“I was a big fan of Nixon in the ’72 election and I was very disappointed with him about the Watergate issue,” he said. “It was a rough time for the GOP. It was tough going. The president is disgraced, and you’re in a Democratic area. But people were civil to me and it was a lot more civil than it is today.”
Binning said it made no sense for Nixon’s campaign to hire five men to break into DNC headquarters. “It seemed ridiculous to go after a Democrat who was a weak candidate,” he said of McGovern.
Numerous area political officials, both Democrats and Republicans, wanted Nixon to resign or be impeached, according to two articles in the Aug. 7, 1974, edition of The Vindicator.
“I feel Nixon could best serve the people and himself by resigning and that it would be in order for an agreement by the House and Senate for no further proceedings,” then-Youngstown Mayor Jack C. Hunter, a Republican and Nixon supporter, said at the time.
“Nixon admits he did wrong. He should resign,” said then-Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman Jack Sulligan.
Harry Meshel, a state senator in 1974 who would become Senate president and Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said he didn’t “take any joy in seeing [Nixon] take a pounding and be forced to leave. I hated to see that happen. You may want them to lose, but you don’t want the nation to lose. It hurt the nation for our president to go out that way. Nixon could have been a great president, but he misused his talents and didn’t trust anyone.”
In 1974, Meshel was challenged by Wade for the Senate seat. Meshel won.
Both said the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation played no factor in that campaign.
“I don’t think Nixon’s resignation had an impact on any local politics,” Meshel said. “Nationally, he hurt the Republican Party.”
Mark Munroe, current Mahoning County Republican Party chairman, was 23 and working at WYTV in production and engineering and “just getting interested in politics” when Nixon resigned.
“I recall watching that resignation speech and living through Watergate, watching it unfold,” he said. “It was a dramatic event. It seemed like the whole country was caught up in the drama of Watergate. Every week brought new revelations. There was a certain inevitability to it all.”
The scandal didn’t deter Munroe from remaining a Republican.
“It was more of a personal tragedy for Nixon than a
political tragedy,” he said.
Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David
Betras was 14 when he watched Nixon’s resignation speech on TV.
“I remember being very influenced by a friend’s father who didn’t like Nixon,” he said. “What [the Watergate scandal] teaches us is wrongdoing is not centered on any one party. Corruption, the quest for power and not doing it the right way is not just from one political party.”
Nixon’s resignation also “solidified the press’ role in being the watchdog of government,” Betras said. “Without a free press, Watergate would have never been uncovered.”