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On This Day: President Nixon seals legacy with famous 'I am not a crook' speech

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This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

When Richard Nixon said the five words that would go on to define his legacy, the setting could not have been more incongruous.

He was talking to 400 Associated Press journalists in Walt Disney World on this day in 1973, when he said a line that brought them to stunned silence.

Nixon said, ‘I have earned every cent. And in all my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice.

‘People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.’

In the televised question-and-answer session Nixon was described as ‘looking tense’, and also made a joke about his plane crashing so that ‘they won’t have to impeach me’.

Richard Nixon gives famous 'I am not a crook' speech in November 1973
Richard Nixon gives famous 'I am not a crook' speech in November 1973
The New York Times reporting President Richard Nixon resigns after the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford taking office (Getty)
The New York Times reporting President Richard Nixon resigns after the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford taking office (Getty)

The phrase, ‘I am not a crook,’ developed a life of its own in the following decades, and is listed at number one in Time magazine’s Top Ten Unfortunate Political One-Liners.

It would be less than a year later that Nixon boarded the Presidential helicopter and left the White House for good.

He is the only American President to have ever resigned.

Portrait of former United States President Richard Nixon (1913 - 1994) taken while he was Vice-President in 1960, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)
Portrait of former United States President Richard Nixon taken while he was Vice-President in 1960, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

He said, ‘To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first… I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing so desperately needed in America.’

Nixon was under investigation over the Watergate scandal, where operatives working for his re-election campaign burgled the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.

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Nixon’s increasingly frenzied efforts to cover up links to the burglary led to him resigning in the face of certain impeachment.

The break-in and the cover-up had long-lasting consequences for American politics, making many Americans feel they could not trust the government.

U.S. President Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip tour the Marble Hall in Buckingham Palace in London, Britain in February 1969. Picture taken in February 1969.    Richard Nixon Presidential Library/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
President Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip tour the Marble Hall in Buckingham Palace in London, Britain in February 1969 (Reuters)

Nixon - who had ended the Vietnam War and resumed America’s relationship with China - was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford.

In the decades after his death, Nixon attempted to rehabilitate himself, occasionally acknowledging how Watergate would stain his reputation.

He told the Oxford Union, ‘I screwed up and paid the price.’

In his biography, he wrote, ‘Only when you have been in the depths, can you appreciate the heights. Without risks you will suffer no defeats. But without defeats you will win no victories.’

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Hunter S. Thompson  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote an obituary of Nixon (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Others were less flattering.

Political Hunter S Thompson, who frequently wrote about Nixon, wrote after his death, ‘He was the real thing - a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family.

‘Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.”’

Thompson’s obituary was titled simply, ‘He Was A Crook.’

Watch: Richard Nixon asked Elvis to 'spy' on John Lennon

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