As support for Richard Nixon continued to fall apart, even his staunchest allies were calling for his resignation. Shortly before this press conference, delivered in Houston Texas at the annual convention of the National Association Of Broadcasters, arch-Conservative New York Senator James Buckley announced to shocked colleagues and to the country, that it was “in the best interests of the nation” for Nixon to resign.
Naturally, the statement from Buckley became a focal point in the press conference:
Q. Mr. President, Bos Johnson, WSAZ Television, Huntington, West Virginia. You have said repeatedly that you will not resign, and yet today, Senator James Buckley today called for you to perform an extraordinary act of statesmanship and courage, voluntary resignation as, as he put it, the only way by which the Watergate crisis can be resolved.
Would you comment on the import of this statement coming from a conservative United States Senator, and whether it might cause you to reassess your position?
THE PRESIDENT. Well first, it does not cause me to reassess my position, although I, of course, do respect the point of view expressed by the Senator and by others, perhaps some sitting here, who share that view.
The point that I wish to make, however, is that when we speak of courage, if I could address that from a personal standpoint first of all, it perhaps would be an act of courage to resign. I should also point out, however, that while it might be an act of courage to run away from a job that you were elected to do, it also takes courage to stand and fight for what you believe is right, and that is what I intend to do.
Mr. Johnson, I would not want to leave your question simply with a personal judgment. I am thinking of the statesmanship which Senator Buckley also addressed. From the standpoint of statesmanship, for a President of the United States, any President, to resign because of charges made against him which he knew were false and because he had fallen in the polls, I think, would not be statesmanship. It might be good politics, but it would be bad statesmanship. And it would mean that our system of government would be changed for all Presidents and all generations in the future.
What I mean by that, very simply, is this: The Constitution provides a method by which a President can be removed from office: impeachment–impeachment for treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors. Now, if a President is not guilty of those crimes, if only charges have been made which he knows are false, and if, simply because as a result of those false charges and as a result of his falling in the polls, he decides to resign, it would mean then that every future President would be presiding over a very unstable Government in the United States of America.
The United States and the free world, the whole world, needs a strong American President, not an American President who, every time the polls go down, says, “Well, maybe I’d better resign.”
Let me give you an example: I have often said to members of the Washington press corps that the most difficult decision I made in my first term was the very last, in December of 1972. You recall then that I found it necessary, because of the breakdown in negotiations in Paris with the North Vietnamese, to order the bombing of military targets in North Vietnam in the Hanoi and Haiphong region by B-52’s.
The bombing began, we lost planes, and at that time I can assure you that not only my friends but many others who had supported the actions that I had taken to attempt to bring the war in Vietnam to an honorable conclusion, criticized and criticized very strongly what I had done.
Great newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Star, that had previously editorially supported me, for example, were among them, and many Senators as well as other public figures spoke out. As a matter of fact, one Senator said, “The President has taken leave of his senses.” Now, I had no hard feelings about that. I made him Attorney General. [Laughter]
The day after Christmas, some of my closest advisers felt that because a poll that they had taken privately indicated that I had dropped 20 points in the polls since the bombing began, that I should consider stopping it. I considered their advice. I did not take it.
I ordered the bombing to continue. I ordered it, as a matter of fact, to be increased on military targets. Five days later, the deadlock was broken, and as a result of that action, an unpopular action but an action which I felt was right, the longest war in America’s history was brought to a conclusion, and our prisoners of war were brought home, as I have often said, on their feet rather than on their knees.
Now, I want future Presidents to be able to make hard decisions, even though they think they may be unpopular, even though they think they may bring them down in the polls, even though they may think they may bring upon them criticism from the Congress which could result in demands that he resign or be impeached.
I want future Presidents to be able to take the strong, right decisions that he believes are right. That is what I did then, and that is what I intend to do in the future.
I think, after that answer, it is only right for me to turn to the left.”
And this was only March – Nixon’s resignation was still some 5 months off, and much would happen between March and then.
Here is that Press conference, as carried live by CBS Radio on March 19, 1974