Gratiot County’s Finest Hour, April 1945 – “The Worst or Best of Times?”

We Remember Gratiot County in 1974 and Something Called “Watergate”

Above: Alma Daily Record Leader front page from August 8, 1974.

It was a time many in Gratiot County wanted to forget, a seemingly endless drama that played out in America for over two years. The end came with public disgrace, and many who remember the 1970s knew its name, “Watergate.”

This crisis started in June 1972 with a group of “plumbers” who organized break-ins at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Within the following year, Senate Hearings investigated the break-in to the DNC headquarters. Soon, connections between the plumbers and the White House emerged. As Senate hearings took place, Americans learned that the President of the United States kept secret tapes of his meetings in the Oval Office.

The existence of the Watergate Tapes would be the center of a tug of war for almost two years between Richard Nixon and the Senate. Eventually, the President would fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor in what was called “The Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973. To add to the nation’s problems, the Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned due to a personal scandal, which led to the nomination and appointment of a Michigan Congressman to fill Agnew’s place.

When Watergate finally ended, for the first time in history, the United States President resigned rather than be removed from office. The word most associated with this time, “Watergate,” was well known among Gratiot County residents from 1972-1974.

For many in Gratiot County, a traditionally conservative Republican stronghold,  it was hard to believe that President Richard M. Nixon would ever intentionally deceive or lie to the American public. Indeed the President of the United States would never swear in private, conduct himself in ways that were un-Presidential, or commit a felony to cover up an investigation? Yet, by the time the Watergate Scandal had run its course, these were the things that people in Gratiot County eventually learned. Despite the President’s infamous saying to the contrary in a 1973 news conference, Richard M. Nixon appeared to be a crook.

An advertisement in the Daily Record Leader attempted to sell readers a 1973 news yearbook with the title “A Year of Internal Struggle.” The title was an apt description of America that year, as it featured the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for income tax evasion. Several people in Gratiot County spoke out about Agnew’s crime and resignation, and all of them expressed disappointment in Agnew. Comments ranged from Arnold Bransdorfer’s lament (“It’s a tragic thing for our country. However it reveals a system of justice in our country that exempts no citizen”) to St. Louis Police Chief Herb Wolford’s discouragement (“I’m very disappointed in Agnew…from the way he first defended himself against charges, I didn’t think he was guilty. It’s a dark day in our history”). A pair of construction workers in Alma both thought Agnew should no longer be Vice President. One commented, “It proves there are felons in the United States government.” An Alma housewife wondered what was going on in America’s future with the President involved in Watergate and the Vice President resigning in disgrace. An Alma College student said that Agnew was just an example of crimes that went on all the time with politicians. In his opinion, Agnew just got picked on by other politicians and the press.

Still, in early 1974 a steady stream of Nixon support existed in Gratiot County. Keith Kellogg, age 81 and a former State Representative, wrote one of the first letters to the editor in the Daily Record Leader that expressed continued support for Nixon. Kellogg argued that other Presidents had suffered scandals – and that President Richard Nixon was also facing a hostile press and still was “answering their vindictive, hatred-filled questions” at press conferences. Kellogg ended his letter with what would be a saying from Republicans and Nixon supporters in Gratiot County for the next few months: “Nixon…Keep him on the job.”

However, starting in early January 1974, there were also voices in Michigan calling for Nixon’s impeachment. A rally of 75 people, organized by Michigan Citizens for Impeachment, took place in downtown Bay City. In response to the continual Watergate investigations, some in Gratiot County organized themselves as a group called Michigan Citizens for Support of President Nixon. Sally McKellar became the organization’s leader after being appointed by Gratiot County Republican Chairman Richard J. Allen. Allen stated that many of these support groups were springing up all over the state, all with people proclaiming their support for President Nixon with full-page advertisements. McKellar quickly requested an appeal to the Gratiot County public to buy a full-page ad in county newspapers. She later said that within a few hours, she had the money in hand to purchase the ad.

Within days, an advertisement in the Daily Record Leader asked county residents who supported Nixon to cut out one of four coupons to mail to representatives in Washington, D.C.  An article below Nixon’s picture reminded readers that Nixon had won the 1972 election with over 60 percent of the vote. He had been successful with American foreign policy, and that while he made mistakes, “(Nixon) has done nothing to betray our trust.” According to the advertisement, Congressional adversaries and an anti-Nixon news media both “dramatized and prolonged” events related to the Watergate break-in. A total of 59 “contributors” in Gratiot County signed their names in support of Nixon, along with two local businesses and “several anonymous donors.”

Within two days, the coupons of support for Nixon had flooded into Congressman Elford A. Cederberg’s office. Cederberg told the Daily Record Leader that he had 80 coupons and several letters of support for President Nixon. These writers indicated to Cederberg that Gratiot County wanted Watergate to end and that it needed to end swiftly. To Cederberg, these Gratiot County coupons and letters mandated clearing the President, getting the political crisis over with, and moving on. Senator Robert Griffin also received “signed coupons” of support – more than 1,150 of them, as well as 177 letters of support for Nixon. A story circulated at that time that Griffin would rather resign as Senate Republican Whip than impeach Nixon. However, Griffin’s aide denied the report as untrue, and Griffin continued supporting the President.

Unfortunately, events in the late winter of 1974 proved that moving on from Watergate would not be easy for Gratiot County people. As more letters appeared in Gratiot County newspapers, support for the President seemed to be more divided. Some local citizens proclaimed unwavering support for the President; others voiced their belief that Nixon should be impeached. Another thought about the crisis was that Nixon should say that he had terrible aides around him and admit that their actions brought on the mess. In other words, he should blame his advisors.

In February 1974, it appeared that Michigan Republicans were becoming concerned about the upcoming state primaries and elections in the late summer and fall. Republicans planned to tell Michigan voters that there was much more for America to be concerned about other than Watergate, and voters should get Watergate out of the way. Still, Michigan voters sent a message during the special February election for a successor for United States Representative Gerald R. Ford, who had become Nixon’s Vice-President. Since World War I, Ford’s district, the Michigan 5th District in Grand Rapids,  had been in Republican hands. All of that changed when Democrat Richard F. VanderVeen upset the Republican candidate. After this shocking defeat, even Michigan Governor William G. Milliken now recognized that the public voted for Democrat VanderVeen as a referendum on Watergate.  Michigan voters started to send a message – they had had enough of Richard Nixon and enough of Watergate.

In Gratiot County, potential apathy about politics due to Watergate now concerned  Republican leaders. In response, Vice President Ford attempted to motivate Gratiot County Republicans to campaign hard in the upcoming elections. On March 30, Ford planned to speak by phone to Gratiot County Republicans at the Lincoln Day Dinner at the Alma Travel Lodge Motel. A total of 161 attendees listened to a taped recorded message in which Ford answered five questions that had previously been submitted to him. However, Ford made no mention of Watergate, and he stated that 1974 would not be a bad year for Republicans – if the party got out and worked for county candidates. “If we have the determination (this fall),” Ford proclaimed, “we will win.”

Soon after Ford’s Lincoln Day Dinner message, President Richard Nixon announced a campaign rally to test his popularity. The rally was Nixon’s first since the Watergate crisis broke. For this experiment, the President chose to visit three small towns in Michigan’s Thumb area (Cass City, Bad Axe, and Sandusky). However, he planned to bypass major cities like Bay City, Saginaw, and Flint.  Before the trip ever started, an anonymous threat was made on the President’s life if he came to Michigan but, nothing came of the threat. Before he ever arrived in Michigan,  Nixon was dogged by his recent confession that he had under-reported his income, but he agreed to pay back all of his past due taxes. Complicating the initial news of Nixon’s visit, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken said he would not ask Nixon to campaign on the governor’s behalf when he came to Michigan.  Like other Republican candidates up for reelection that year, Milliken feared getting too close to Nixon and Watergate. Still, when Nixon arrived in Michigan, Milliken was right there to greet him.

A crowd estimated at 5,000 people, which started arriving hours before the President’s plane arrived, packed into Tri-City Airport in Freeland to welcome Nixon. Cars backed up in lines at least four miles from the airport as many people from mid-Michigan wanted to see Nixon. While the crowd seemed largely friendly,  some signs amidst the throngs read “Kick the Bum Out,” “If You Love Us, Leave Us,” and “Nixon is the Nation’s No. 1 Crook.”

 As he toured the Thumb area, an estimated 20,000 people turned out along the 57-mile route that Nixon traveled. During the entire trip, the President never mentioned Watergate or any of his political troubles,  keeping to what appeared to be a traditional campaign plan. In the end, the Michigan visit was a litmus test for Nixon to explore his popularity during Watergate in what was an area that was supposedly safe Republican territory.

Regardless of the Michigan trip, by the end of April 1974, Watergate still refused to go away. President Nixon tried to convince the American public in a 35-minute television address that he was innocent by handing over 1200 pages of edited transcripts from the controversial White House tapes. For some time, a political tug of war had taken place about the recordings and the Senate Watergate Committee’s demands to listen to all of the tapes.  Because these transcripts were edited, many in Gratiot County remained skeptical that the transcripts would clear Nixon. While some loyal Nixon supporters believed that the country needed to get beyond Watergate, those polled in a local survey sounded like they believed Nixon to be guilty of something.  Mrs. Allen Ropp of Alma stated that she thought the President “was trying to defend, to justify himself, in what he’s done.” Gerald Mayes of Alma had voted Republican for a long time and voted for Nixon, “But I wouldn’t do it again,” he added. Others interviewed in Gratiot County thought that Nixon was still hiding something, that he should have given up the tapes long ago, or that the politicians should never have opened up the Watergate investigation in the first place. Sally McKellar, a staunch Nixon supporter and Gratiot County Republican Party member, still firmly stated that “I have faith in the President.”

The problem with Nixon’s turnover of the Watergate transcripts that day was that he failed to share 42 actual tapes that had been subpoenaed. The neatly stacked, blue leather-bound transcripts that Nixon sat next to during his television address that night were unable to stop the crisis or the demands for all of the Watergate tapes.

As spring turned to summer, Vice President Gerald R. Ford’s unwavering support for Nixon continued. Ford stated that he still believed that Nixon was innocent of any crimes or a cover-up, but by the heart of summer, this all started to change. The Chairman of the Michigan State Republican Party came to Alma in late June to urge Gratiot County Republican leaders not to let Watergate distract them. State Chairman William McLoughlin confessed, “Watergate is with us regardless, but we must not fall into the debate trap with the Democrats.” McLoughlin urged the Gratiot leaders to get Republicans to find independent voters “and wet nurse them until election day.” Also, the party needed to contact potential voters by mail and make personal contacts for their votes. Also, Gratiot County Republicans needed to target eighteen-year-old voters.

In the late summer of 1974, Watergate entered its final stretch. Panax, the company that owned Alma’s Daily Record Leader, issued an editorial lamenting the attacks on President Nixon. It also argued that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, “are being accorded less consideration than muggers on a dark street.” The column indirectly criticized the Watergate reporting, which exposed the break-in as far back as the summer of 1972.  Panax did not think much of writers using “unattributed sources and unconfirmed leaks” at the Washington Post, which exposed Watergate. In another way, Panax seemed to be critical (or jealous) of the exposure and accolades that writers like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received for their reporting and writing that broke open the Watergate scandal.

To the very end, with Watergate, politics remained politics in Gratiot County. Democratic County Chairman Allen Ropp echoed those critical of Nixon by arguing that all of the Watergate tapes had to be turned over to the public. Nixon also needed to resign immediately.  Sally McKellar, the Republican Chairman, disagreed, and then she said this: “I do not feel the tapes should be turned over…I wish Richard Nixon would have burned the tapes and said now what the ‘hell’ you going to do about it?” To McKellar, the news media had overblown the entire Watergate crisis. Surprisingly, in the last days of the scandal, both party leaders in Gratiot County agreed on one thing: Watergate had hurt and would continue to harm Americans in both parties, and it had seriously damaged the country.

As early as August 1, 1974, it appeared that Richard Nixon would soon face impeachment. Republican Representative John Ashbrook of Ohio believed that Nixon would be impeached by a 3-1 margin in the House of Representatives. Four days later, Nixon made the stunning admission that he had withheld information from Congress about Watergate, specifically regarding a tape from June 23, 1972, that recorded how Nixon used the CIA to stop an FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in. Nixon reviewed the tape in May 1973 and then withheld the information from his lawyers and his closest supporters. Even Vice President Gerald Ford was shocked. With the President’s admission on that day, impeachment in Nixon’s own words was a “foregone conclusion.”

Voting in the Michigan primary elections across Gratiot County was extremely light on August 6.  County Clerk Eva Smith commented that “There just doesn’t seem to be much  interest in a primary election, and this is such an important election.” Panax issued another editorial in the Daily Record Leader, ending its column by changing its course and saying, “We haven’t lost faith in the presidency, we have lost faith in Richard M. Nixon and he must resign.”

And that was what happened as Nixon announced his resignation as President of the United States. Just before noon on Thursday, August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon and his wife held an emotional farewell meeting with the White House staff. They then walked with Vice President Ford and his wife toward a helicopter on the White House grounds, Nixon waving good bye one last time. In moments, the Nixons were gone and supposedly, Watergate was over. Or was it?

Many Gratiot County residents were asked about their reactions on August 8 about the Nixon resignation. Some said Nixon should not be prosecuted for any crimes, that stepping down from office was enough of a punishment, according to Sally McKellar, Gratiot County Republican chairman. She still tried to deflect the enormity of what had happened by saying, “I think (Nixon) has suffered enough.” Gratiot County Clerk Eva Smith commented that “We ought not be vindictive. We are all human ad we all make mistakes. (Nixon) is also human, and he made his mistakes.” Robert Henderson, Chairman of the Gratiot County Board of Commissioners, thought it was best for the nation that Nixon resigned. He said, “I think (Nixon) was a victim of circumstances. I believe (Watergate) could have happened to other presidents under the right conditions.” Strong sentiments said the resignation was the best result given the Watergate scandal. However, more would come out into the open.

Many Gratiot County residents hoped that a resignation would end Watergate, as did many legislators. About a week later, Representative John Engler of Mt. Pleasant told a Gratiot County Republican Party Convention in Ithaca that there was more fallout ahead. He was right. The first non-elected United States President,  Gerald R. Ford, had been sworn in and enjoyed a brief honeymoon with America and the press. It all ended one month after the Nixon resignation when President Ford told the nation on television that he granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon.”  Many Americans – and many Gratiot County residents – were stunned.

There would be no trial of Richard M. Nixon. President Ford told Americans that it was for the good of the nation that Nixon not face a lengthy and drawn-out trial (such would not be the case for most of his aides). Most of those interviewed in Gratiot County thought the pardon was unfair and that Nixon had gotten away with a crime. Historians would debate the Nixon pardon for years to come.

For President Gerald R. Ford, it meant in the end that he would not be re-elected to office in 1976. Another struggle that Ford soon encountered after the pardon dealt with his plan for pardoning draft evaders from the Vietnam War. Ford proposed allowing draft evaders to do two years of community service for being allowed back into the country. The proposal met almost as sharp a reaction in Gratiot County as the Nixon pardon did. While a few people were quoted as liking the idea, many thought it was wrong. Moving the nation ahead from Watergate and Vietnam proved to be hard for President Ford and the country to do after Nixon resigned. On a side note, the Alma City Commission adopted a resolution in late August 1974 to formally invite Ford to the 1976 Highland Festival. Not much seemed to come from the invitation.

For this writer, the Watergate era left some vivid memories, even though I was a young teen when it all transpired. As the Watergate hearings took place in the summer of 1973, I remember my father parking his pickup in the driveway and doing something he seldom did. After a long day of work at Alma Products, he sat in the truck, parked halfway up the driveway, listening to John Dean give testimony about Richard Nixon’s knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. Apparently, the news was shocking enough for my father to stop him for several minutes as he listened to Dean’s testimony. I seem to recall him saying, “He (John Dean) is one of these guys who knows what was happening (in the White House).”

In the early evening of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, I was sitting in the upper deck of Tiger Stadium watching the Detroit Tigers play the Cleveland Indians. It was a disappointing visit for me.  Just the day before, the Tigers traded Gratiot County native Jim Northrup to the Montreal Expos. Sometime early in the game that night, the Tigers announcer came on the air to tell the sparse crowd of 12,408 fans that President Nixon would resign from office at noon the next day. I clearly remember a group of young adults sitting behind me, discussing and arguing amongst themselves about what should happen to Nixon. The Tigers won that night, minus a long time Gratiot County player, and a President resigned his office.

After a very late night at Tiger Stadium, I remember everyone sleeping in the following day. For some reason, I turned on the television and watched the coverage of  Richard Nixon’s last hour or two in office before he left the White House on that day in August 1974.

It was all a thing called Watergate, and for some of us in Gratiot County, we remember those times too well.

Copyright 2021 James M Goodspeed