As a midday TV drama, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s speech culminating with his resignation from office was first-rate, despite all the self-serving, weasel-like content. That it came after his lawyer’s attack on an attorney general’s report that had destroyed Cuomo’s base of support among New York Democrats added a lot of momentary suspense. Would the famously obstinate veteran governor force the Legislature to move toward removing him from office? Would he resign only at the 11th hour to prevent any action that would deny him a comeback opportunity in 2022 or beyond? It wasn’t clear until the very end, after his weird, bathetic effort to pose as a feminist through identification with his three daughters, who must have been cringing if they watched at all.
Drama aside, as a resignation message rooted in a non-apologetic apology and an alleged desire not to let his accusers disrupt governance, the immediate analogy that came to the mind of us baby boomers was Richard M. Nixon’s speech to the nation almost exactly 47 years ago, on August 8, 1974.
There really wasn’t much doubt about what Nixon was going to do. Republican leaders had made clear to him that impeachment and removal from office were a certainty if he didn’t quit in the wake of the appearance of a “smoking gun” tape exposing the president’s personal involvement in a cover-up of the Watergate scandal.
One key overlap between the Nixon and Cuomo speeches involves an insincere-sounding apology that evaded the allegations that made the resignation necessary. Here’s Nixon’s:
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.
And here’s Cuomo’s:
I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting. I do hug and kiss people casually, women and men. I have done it all my life. It’s who I’ve been since I can remember. In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have. No excuses.
Both men also explained their resignations as the product of politics, rather than justice. Nixon said he was resigning because:
I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future. But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.
Cuomo was even more blunt:
This situation and moment are not about the facts. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about thoughtful analysis. It’s not about how do we make the system better. This is about politics. And our political system today is too often driven by the extremes.
Finally, both Nixon and Cuomo seemed most concerned with insisting they weren’t “quitters” but were selflessly putting aside personal feelings out of concern for the office they were resigning from. Here’s Nixon:
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, which I truly believe is politically motivated. I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful, and I believe that it demonizes behavior that is unsustainable for society. If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand … but I became a fighter for you, and it is your best interests that I must serve. This situation by its current trajectory will generate months of political and legal controversy … It will consume government. It will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It will brutalize people …
I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. And therefore, that’s what I’ll do because I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you.
The biggest difference, of course, is that, as far as we know, Nixon wasn’t plotting a political comeback but to stay out of the hoosegow — a possibility soon removed by the pardon his successor, Gerald Ford, gave him.
Speaking of Ford, another famous resignation speech preceded Nixon’s by ten months: that of former vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. He had to explain to the American people the plea deal he had signed a few days earlier that included his stepping down as veep (to be replaced eventually by Ford).
Like Nixon and Cuomo, Agnew blustered his way through a denial of any real culpability, blaming his forced resignation on politics (in his case, the politics of Maryland’s tradition of bribes and shakedowns, in which he had been caught by shocked federal prosecutors who stumbled upon evidence that the former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor had been and was still accepting cash kickbacks from road contractors). But there wasn’t much question that Agnew resigned to avoid prison (he instead got parole by pleading guilty of tax evasion on the money he had pocketed), and the only drama was the resignation itself, which occurred six days before his speech.
A gubernatorial resignation speech that did come out of the blue and that I thought of when watching Cuomo’s careful, serpentine exposition was that of Sarah Palin on July 2, 2009.
Palin offered up a characteristic word salad that never really explained why she was stepping down with nearly a year and a half remaining in her only term. She vaguely alluded to political enemies who were investigating her involvement in “Troopergate,” a state-employee firing scandal, but it was all quite confusing. As I noted at the time, “To the extent that there are any coherent rationales expressed in her announcement, they involve the distractions of her battles with her lower-48 enemies (and perhaps their Alaskan stooges) and her realization that she wouldn’t be doing much work as a lame duck, so why wait to resign?”
At least Cuomo didn’t leave us guessing about his motivations, much as we may wonder if he is already dreaming of a 2022 comeback — which would be delusional, albeit not much of a surprise from one of the most famously rampant egos in American politics. Regardless, the disgraced governor’s resignation speech will likely be of interest to political scientists, and psychologists, for a long time to come.