Forty years ago today, President Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address to the nation. Donald F. Terry, 68, who lives off Shore Street in Falmouth, wrote the original articles of impeachment introduced against President Nixon following the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.
On Tuesday afternoon, August 5, Mr. Terry sat down to talk about the scandal and the role he played in history. “It’s 40 years ago,” he said, seated in a red upholstered armchair in a sunroom off his kitchen. “But for me, it’s like yesterday.”
In the early 1970s, fresh out of law school, Mr. Terry got a job as the chief aide to Congressman Jerome R. Waldie, a Democrat from California. In October 1973, it had been more than a year since five men with connections to the White House were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. Pressure was mounting on the president to turn over tape recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office. Refusing, Mr. Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal and demanded the resignation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general. This became known as the “Saturday night massacre.”
That night, October 20, 1973, Mr. Terry was at home in Washington watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “And into the show comes breaking news. And the newscasters are stuttering, they’re speechless!” he said. “The attorney general has been fired, the deputy attorney general, and Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor. It was almost like a coup taking place.”
“And this,” Mr. Terry said, “is when I started to get involved.”
Mr. Terry immediately called and spoke with Congressman Waldie in California. After several hours, Rep. Waldie called him back, “And he says, ‘Well, you need to get working over the weekend, because I just announced that on Tuesday I’m going to introduce the first articles of impeachment.’ ” Mr. Terry had two days to write the resolution and collect as many co-sponsors as possible.
Leaning forward in his chair, Mr. Terry picked up a framed document covered in signatures. It was a copy of the impeachment articles, autographed by the co-sponsors. This resolution, House Resolution 648, was introduced on Tuesday, October 23, 1973. The resolution was not voted on, but it sparked an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee into the allegations that the president was intimately involved in the execution and cover-up of the Watergate break-in. “It was gathering information, depositions, further information,” Mr. Terry said, windmilling his hands in front of him.
Finally, after months of private testimony and much internal bickering about how to proceed, Mr. Terry recalled House Judiciary Committee member John J. Conyers getting up and saying, “ ‘If we don’t get our act together, they [the American people] are going to impeach us [Congress].’ ”
“I’ll never forget him saying that,” Mr. Terry said. “And that was it, we went public at the end of July.”
At several days of public testimony and speeches, the committee voted to recommend the articles of impeachment, with over a third of the committee’s Republicans voting for impeachment. The White House then released a “smoking gun” tape of Mr. Nixon discussing the cover-up days after the break-in.
“I felt proud in the end. That the political system worked. It wasn’t a partisan thing.” Mr. Terry said, “It was heartbreaking to think that was what was going on, but the system worked.”
Mr. Terry said he worked non-stop from the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973 until President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974, a time period that included the birth of his second daughter, Meghan. When he watched Nixon’s resignation on television, Mr. Terry said,
“The emotion I had was, ‘Thank goodness, we can go to Falmouth.’ ” He called his wife, Denise A. Terry, and said he would be able to join her and the children for vacation and Meghan’s baptism in Falmouth, where Mr. Terry’s mother and aunt lived.
Ms. Terry, who had come back from a pool aerobics class and listened to her husband excitedly recounting the intricacies of the Watergate scandal, said she never resented how busy her husband was during that time. “I was excited,” she said. “I thought he was doing the most important work.”
Mr. Terry went on to serve in other positions in the government, including the deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for international affairs in the Carter administration. However, by the time President William J. Clinton was elected in 1992, Mr. Terry was disillusioned with politics, which he said had deteriorated to the point of dysfunction. He decided instead to contribute his public policy skills to international development and poverty alleviation. Mr. Terry still consults part time for the United Nations and World Bank.
In 2008, the Terrys moved full time to Falmouth. “He said he just couldn’t stand to be in Washington anymore,” Ms. Terry said with a shrug. Both Mr. and Ms. Terry serve on the board of the Carousel of Light, a group formed to find a permanent home for the locally made carousel operating in the Mullen-Hall Elementary School parking circle this summer. Mr. Terry hands out stickers to young riders. Another local civic contribution was asking town manager Julian M. Suso to place a garbage can at the corner of Main and Shore streets, which Mr. Suso did, Mr. Terry noted approvingly.
“So I’ve gone from impeaching the president, to asking Julian to put a trash can on Main Street, and handing out stickers”—Mr. Terry paused—“I love handing out stickers to the kids.”