Don Carrigan reflects: Richard Nixon and a rookie reporter

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- This 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon brings back memories of my first full year as a working reporter. I was the evening anchor and reporter at WLBZ-TV in Bangor, a four-person newsroom where everyone did everything.

Second District Congressman Rep. Bill Cohen was in his first term in Washington, and returned often to his hometown of Bangor. We had interviewed him on many occasions about the Watergate Committee hearings, and impeachment debate. Cohen's decision to vote for impeachment was a huge news story for us.

Shortly after he made the historic vote, Cohen came home to Maine and made a statewide TV appearance from Portland to explain the vote. I was there that night, very possibly a Sunday, when he gave the speech and answered reporter questions.

The biggest story of all was the possible resignation of the President. There was a general understanding on that August 8 that President Nixon was probably going to announce his resignation that night, but it was still stunning to hear the words. We listened, I recall, from a bar in Bangor where others were also listening, then talked with them for reaction. Then went back, processed and edited the film and put it all on the 11 p.m. news.

That night had seemed unbelievable, but also strangely inevitable, like the demise of the central actor in a Greek tragedy.

The final act came the next day, when the President made his farewell to the White House staff, then that famous scene boarding the helicopter, with one final, two-handed, V- for- Victory wave. Then he was gone, and Gerald Ford was President.

For us in Maine, the story wasn't over. Gerald Ford still needed to name a vice president, and speculation soon focused on Nelson Rockefeller, former Governor of New York and lifelong summer resident of Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island. One or two days after Nixon flew off in disgrace, Rockefeller was scheduled to land in Bangor. He had been booked long before the scandal to be the guest speaker at a big Republican fundraising dinner at the Bangor Auditorium. What had, until then, been a routine local event, was suddenly in the center of the national media spotlight. The three TV networks (that's what we had then), national newspapers and magazines all descended on the Auditorium. There was a crush of cameras out front when Rockefeller arrived, a race down the stairs to the big, echoing auditorium. All were trying, hoping to get a quick confirmation that he could be the next V.P.

It was my first run-in with the aggressive national press corps, and it was quite an introduction. I don't recall what Rockefeller said that night, but I don't think he confirmed any speculation. However, within a few days Gerald Ford did, indeed, select him to be vice president.

For us, that began a two-year run of covering Rockefeller when he came for summer visits. At least once per year, each time he was in residence at the oceanfront house on the island, the local and national press would be invited in to get a chance to ask questions and get pictures of Rockefeller enjoying himself. At least once we got to watch him on his sailboat.

He was a fascinating figure, son of America's best known wealthy family - a family with a tremendous and fascinating history on MDI. Those reporting trips were like getting to peek inside two forbidden worlds - national politics and wealthy elites.

For a rookie reporter, it was a terrific introduction to how major events can touch us at home. That lesson would be helpful the next year, when Jimmy Carter came to town.

Carter was trying to start his own campaign for President. That was before he had handlers or security, and was just a southern state Governor looking to make friends up north.

A Watergate-weary nation helped Carter defeat Ford and put Rockefeller into retirement. Two years later, Carter would come back to Bangor as President for a two-day visit, including a speech in that same auditorium.

A year later, Americans were taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. One of them was Richard Queen, whose parents had a home at Lincolnville Beach. Queen would be released by his captors, after he developed MS, and eventually came to the house in Maine to recuperate. We would get to meet him there.

And then, in his final year in office, Jimmy Carter would name Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as U.S. Secretary of State. That set off yet another crush of national attention, as Muskie took his turn with the Iranian hostage crisis. It also led to the appointment of George Mitchell as U.S. Senator to replace Muskie, his mentor.

Several years later, Mitchell and fellow Senator Bill Cohen would play key roles in the Iran Contra investigation, and Mitchell would then become Senate Majority Leader, one of the most influential people in the country.

It was an amazing sequence of events, and an incredible experience for a young reporter trying to follow it all. And you can make a pretty strong argument all those events and actions were set in motion by Richard Nixon, on that amazing August night, 40 years ago.



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