President Nixon’s Resignation Speech, Article Critique Example

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Article Critique

Introduction

On August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon publicly and officially resigned his office in a televised address from the Oval Office of the White House.  This act occurred as Nixon’s second term was in force; he had been reelected to the presidency in 1972 by a wide margin, boosted by immense public support for his international policies, as well as by conflict within the opposing Democratic party (Kilpatrick).  The resignation was prompted by the accumulation of two years of damaging investigations as to Nixon’s involvement in the 1972 Watergate scandal, in which men acting on orders from the Republican Committee to Reelect the President had broken into Democratic National Headquarters.  In Senate hearings largely televised to the public, the ongoing investigation increasingly indicated full awareness on Nixon’s part as to the crime, if not outright complicity.  This reportage, while intended to serve legislative and judicial interests, essentially created the foundation for the unprecedented resignation, ending a presidency otherwise predominantly viewed as vastly successful.

So unique an occurrence offers a singular opportunity for examining how public address may achieve multiple purposes, and be prompted by a variety of aims.  Speculation and analysis of Nixon’s resignation have been extensive, as they continue to be, yet certain aspects are generally agreed upon.  On one level, there was a pragmatic imperative in place; the prestige of the office required that a formal statement be made to the public and that the form of voluntary resignation be followed, in order to adhere to governmental procedure.  On another, and as was certainly known to Nixon at the time, this was an opportunity as unique as the circumstances creating it.  On this sole occasion, Nixon could directly issue a statement to the United States, and to a watching world, as to his own position regarding the scandal bringing down his administration.

A dual purpose may then be discerned, in that Nixon sought to accomplish the full accommodating of the office’s obligations in such a situation, as well as present himself and his administration in as favorable a light as possible.  The speech was very much about formal policy, but the greater emphasis was on vindication, and in presenting an ethical focus on Nixon’s part in no way diminished by the machinations generating the resignation itself.

Summary

In terms of direct statement, Nixon begins his address with a preamble, in order to briefly explain, by means of reinforcing his own commitment to the office, what is to follow.  He directly refers to the purpose of the speech, in fact, before affirming his decision, and in a way emphasizing the anguish that purpose brings to him.  This done, he formally declares that he is resigning, giving the effective time and noting that Vice President Ford will assume the presidency immediately thereafter.  Nixon then goes on to stress the worthiness of Ford and the responsibility of all Americans to cooperate in working for the national interests, by supporting the new president.  From here, he discusses what he evidently believes to be the enormous accomplishments made by his administration, urging that these efforts not be undermined by the internal conflict in place due to Watergate.  Nixon admits to some culpability, but only in terms of poor choices made, and he ends the speech insisting on his adhering to the betterment of the nation in the future, as has always been his sole motivation (PBS.org).

Less directly, there is a vast array of implications in the speech, as will be discussed below,  Most notably, a dominant agenda to present himself as unjustly maligned infuses the speech, an aspect made all the more emphatic by persistently humble declarations of an intent only to be of service to the nation.  There is as well an implied misdirection, or suspect motivation, on the part of the Congress; a sense that undue focus has been attached to an unimportant matter is provided, reinforced by the immensity of the accomplishments cited by Nixon as clearly the results of his terms.  Importantly, Nixon affirms that world peace has been his primary goal, and the inherent weight of such a goal must lessen the value of the proceedings, legally mandated or otherwise, compelling him to resign.  Lastly, the final inference goes to a sense of Nixon as victim, if not martyr.  This is established by his “forgiving” of his political adversaries:  “Let me say I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me”  (PBS.org).  The indirect effect, then, is in total a dismissal of any significant culpability, a blatant reflection of deeply personal regret over circumstances not in his control, and an avowal regarding high ideals as demonstrated by a record of unparalleled success in international relations.

Critique

As noted, Nixon’s resignation speech offers, by virtue of its uniqueness, extraordinary opportunities to assess how ethos, logos, and pathos may be employed in a pivotal address.  Clearly, a great deal beyond a simple and formalized resignation of office is occurring here; the office is the highest in the Western world, it has been tainted by associations of corruption, and the speaker is motivated to sustain a reputation he believes worthy of prestigious recognition, even as the occasion itself implies the lack of this.  Not inconsequentially, there is as well an imperative to reinforce transitions in government at this level as occurring with minimal disruption.  That this is an ethical constraint acknowledged by Nixon, it must be said, in no way diminishes his carrying out the critical function.

In examining Nixon’s speech, an interesting concept arise, in that the ethos essentially defines or encompasses the pathos and logos also within it.  More exactly, Nixon’s circumstances at the time of the resignation vastly illustrate a crucial component of ethos, in that the audience’s perception of the speaker informs its ethical determinations of him.  For an emotional connection to occur as desirable to the speaker, the listeners must on some level accept that there is truth in the speaker’s character (Bizzell  60).  No matter how the speech then proceeds or has effect, the pathos and logos must in some fashion depend upon this relationship as being effectively in place.  Nixon seems keenly aware of this urgency.  His actual opening reflects the pathos of direct emotional appeal, as he remarks upon how many times in the past he has addressed the American people.  This establishes a link of familiarity and kinship, but it implies as well a relationship of mutual trust.  Nixon here is, in his commencement, plainly referring to a perceived respect he anticipates from his audience.  To underscore a basis for the respect, then, and to directly support the ethos, he states: “In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the nation” (PBS.org).  It is interesting to note here the precise language; if Nixon adopts more formal constructions throughout the speech, these words seem to be chosen to express as “simple” an appeal as possible.

The ensuring thrust of Nixon’s employment of ethos is, not unexpectedly, based upon a refusal to confront challenges to it.  This may be in part excused by the environment of the speech, in that specific refutations of guilt would be inappropriate in a formal resignation on this order, as well as likely damaging to the public perception of governmental responsibility and maturity.  Consequently, the ethos is limited because the logos is limited.  In no uncertain terms, Watergate’s impact had eroded the viability and integrity of the office immeasurably, and it is not incidental that the issue was one of actual, criminal involvement.  Had Nixon’s “Waterloo” been of a more personal nature, as occurred with President Clinton’s troubles with allegations of a sexual kind, a logos-driven imperative on the realities of the administrations successes would likely have been more effective, and more in order.  Given the true circumstances, however, Nixon could only promote his ethos by evading matters pertinent to the logos of the situation.  He does this deftly: “Because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary”  (PBSD.org), and this is one of two direct references he makes identifying Watergate solely as an element within the broader, and far more important, canvas of congressional support.  This is both evasion and a central agent in promoting the ethos.  By presenting Watergate as a vague component perhaps triggering a more significant issue, Nixon departs from genuine ethos.  He is shaping the rhetoric to accommodate, and enhance as much as possible, the ethical relationship between himself and the public upon which he relies.

In one way, this avoidance of addressing Watergate as a specific factor unto itself is a textbook case of rhetorical fallacy.  It ignores, rather than denies, and the avoidance has not unexpectedly been taken to indicate culpability.  At the same time, it must be remembered that there is no real dichotomy between Nixon’s agenda for himself and that of the country.  It is important to note that an ethical breach is not necessarily a part of a rhetorical fallacy; while the fallacy is presenting logic in a dubious manner, it may be going to either reflect a genuine purpose on the part of the speaker or achieve an ethical – or at least not unethical – end.  The fallacy usually exists to move the listener away from rational processes  (Campbell, Huxman  126).  Nevertheless, it may be argued that, Nixon’s own interests aside, the greater ethical imperative was the reassurance of the public, even as it may also be said that, again, the occasion of the speech was not the forum in which criminal matters should be explored, challenged, or refuted.  Nixon may be criticized for offering a self-serving, self-aggrandizing speech, yet it must also be noted that what serves his personal interests may very well have been essential in serving the larger cause.  If the coincidence is disagreeable, it remains valid.  He states: “America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad”  (PBS.org).  Aside from the inescapable appeal to pragmatism here, ethos and logos are fully served.  That Nixon seizes upon Watergate as crippling the functions of the government, rather than as the instrument of his own fall, is a choice he is entitled to make.

Viewed in its entirety, in fact, Nixon’s speech represents the complexity inherent in any address of such import.  More exactly, logos, ethos, and pathos are not independent proofs or instruments, but rather mutually dependent channels of persuasion and thought.  An elected official of this stature, and one with a long history of being widely recognized to the people, inevitably is a subject of complex perceptions.  Leaders are assessed by character, and this is based on both identified actions and ideas regarding the value systems, personal characteristics, and inherent integrity of the leader.  Elements of pathos, then, are infused within determinations based on rationales and ethics.  An appeal of this kind made to the people – and the resignation is most definitely an appeal to understanding – then employs this intricate framework to achieve its ends.  In Nixon’s case, it seems evident that a maintaining of professional and personal dignity, an implied insistence on virtue as his dominant motive, a reliance on a perceived appreciation of past performance as well as virtue, and the ethical imperative of concern for the nation’s welfare are what he seeks to achieve.  It is to his credit that, to a significant extent, he succeeds in the speech.  At the time, even as criticism met the evasive aspects, the speech was largely well-accepted, and both press and public applauded the gravity and dignity of it (Bochin 81).  There was, in fact, tangible impact as arising from an appeal to pathos: “A White House spokesman said more than 10,000 telephone calls were received…expressing ‘disbelief and the hope that the President would not resign’” (Kilpatrick).  Given the extraordinary circumstances – Nixon was at the time still facing severe criminal charges – these are no minor accomplishments.

It is then all the more interesting to observe that Nixon’s own success is precarious, in that he jeopardizes his intent through too strong an effort to legitimize his character and his administration.  After summarizing his hopes and expectations for the nation as Ford assumes office, and after vaguely referring to the poor judgment that led to this misfortune, Nixon draws upon his record to indirectly challenge the forces that have compelled him to resign.  This is ostensibly presented as a legacy in place to encourage further advances in the years to come, but the message itself reveals a different motive: the injustice inherent in dismissing so skilled an executive officer.  Once again, logos is employed to trigger pathos, or at least a reaction in which the basic assumptions going to the event must be questioned.  Nixon remarks upon the progress he has made with the Soviet Union.  He refers to the easing of nuclear tensions he has orchestrated, and he plainly draws out what has been identified as perhaps his greatest success: “We have unlocked the doors that for a quarter of a century stood between the United States and the People’s Republic of China”  (PBS.org).  There can be no doubt that here is a blatant “scolding,” if one obliquely made; I am, he is affirming, a president who has immensely benefited the nation, and in the vital arena of international affairs; that I have been hounded to this point is then all the more tragic, and for the people themselves.  This is emphasized by his final words which, in offering a prayer for the American people, convey that the prayer is very much needed under these unnecessary circumstances.  Nonetheless, it may be said that even these overt measures do not impede the impact of the speech as a whole.  As the elements of ethos, logos, and pathos interact, it seems that Nixon’s own determination to exalt himself here reflects an ethical foundation.  Simply, as he emphatically asserts his abilities and achievements, he “believes” in himself to a degree prompting, if not admiration, respect.

Conclusion

President Nixon’s resignation speech has long been a singular example of rhetoric, chiefly because it is a speech constructed and delivered to address a unique and immeasurably important circumstance.  That rhetorical fallacy is within the speech is clear, yet the fallacy is essentially validated by the actual circumstances of the occasion; if Nixon sets aside the years of intense investigation stemming from his Watergate involvement, that factor ultimately is extraneous to the necessary message to be made.  Then, in this address may be seen how potently the proofs of ethos, pathos, and logos combine to create an over-arching effect.  Nixon appeals to his audience through a presentation of himself as a victim, which generates, if not outright sympathy, doubt; he consistently affirms his ethical commitment to his office, relying at least partly on his acknowledged relationship with the public; and he cites significant efforts made by him underlying his right to make the appeals to pathos and ethos.  In a time and place unlike any known to American history, Nixon’s resignation speech is a careful, if occasionally excessive, construction of rhetoric that amply serves both speaker and audience.

Works Cited

Bizzell, P.  Rhetorical Agendas: Political, Ethical, Spiritual.  New York: Psychology Press, 2006.         Print.

Bochin, H.  Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 1990.  Print.

Campbell, K. K., & Huxman, S. S.  The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing            Critically.  Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2008.  Print.

Kilpatrick, C.  “Nixon Resigns.”  The Washington Post, 9 Aug., 1974.  Web. 19 Jan., 2013.

<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/articles/080974-  3.htm>

PBS.org.  President Nixon’s Resignation Speech.  Presidential Links. Web.  19 Jan., 2013.

<http://www.pbs.org/newshour/character/links/nixon_speech.html>

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