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Watergate: The Scandal That Brought Down a President

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

Watergate is known by most Americans as the worst scandal in 20th-century American politics. It was the scandal that plagued Richard Nixon’s presidency, ultimately leading to his resignation. The Watergate case shocked the United States and caused a constitutional crisis.

In American political history, Watergate represents a deliberate subversion of the democratic values through criminal acts run by Nixon and his administration. Both Nixon and his staff were guilty of an array of clandestine operations, such as the suppression of civil rights, discriminatory income tax audits and other punitive sanctions targeting political opponents, use of domestic warfare in operations of espionage and sabotage, and repeated attempts to intimidate mass media. Using the services of FBI, CIA and IRS, Nixon and his aides ordered investigations of several political figures and activists, which they considered opponents of the White House.

The Break-in

The incident that triggered the scandal was a burglary at the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. on June 17, 1972. By investigating the burglary and arresting the burglars, the FBI discovered a connection between the five burglars and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), which was the official organization of Nixon’s campaign.

In January 1972, the Finance Counsel for the CRP G. Gordon Mitchell, CRP’s Acting Chairman Jeb Stuart Magruder, Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean planned an extensive illegal operation against the Democratic Party. Their plan was to enter the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. for burgling, but also for attempting to install listening devices in the telephones. Liddy was designated the leader of the operation, yet his aides changed as the plan progressed. Two former CIA officers, E. Edward Hunt and James McCord were also involved. They broke-in at the DNC’s headquarters on May 28, and managed to wiretap two phones inside the offices. Even though the CRP agents successfully installed the listening devices, they later discovered that the devices needed repair and they planned a second break-in to fix the issues.

On June 17, 1972, one of the security guards at the Watergate Complex noticed strange movements inside the offices and alerted the police. McCord and four Cuban men were found inside the DNC’s headquarters. They were arrested and charged with attempted burglary and interception of telephone and communications. On January 1973, they were convicted of burglary, violation of federal wiretapping laws, and conspiracy. During the investigation of the burglary, Nixon’s organization quickly started to plan a cover up that would remove any harmful evidence against the president. Several officials of the Nixon administration were afraid that Hunt and Liddy would have all their activities scrutinized since they were also part in a separate secret operation which was concerned with stopping leaks and managing sensitive security matters.

Watergate Complex taken from the air in 2006

Watergate Complex taken from the air in 2006

Deep Throat

When informed about the break-in, Nixon proved to be slightly skeptic about the affair, yet he started to worry. As revealed by the tape of a June 23, 1972 conversation between Nixon and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, the president did not have any knowledge of the burglary, but he was directly involved in the attempts to cover up the incident. During the conversation, Nixon expressed his intention of pressuring the FBI and CIA to stop the investigations in the Watergate case under the pretense that national security secrets could be exposed if the FBI would inquire into the events more widely.

Nixon officially stated that no one in the White House or his administration had any part in the strange incident. However, examinations of the burglars’ bank accounts showed that there was a close link between them and the finance committee of the CRP. They had received thousands of dollars in checks earmarked for Nixon’s re-election campaign. Despite their attempts to cover up the origins of the money, the FBI investigation revealed records of the transactions. Soon, the FBI found several direct or indirect ties between the burglars and the CRP, causing suspicion that government officials were also involved.

On October 10, 1972, the FBI’s reports exposed the connection between the Watergate break-in and a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage against the Democrats on behalf of Nixon’s re-election committee.

Despite these public revelations, Nixon’s campaign did not suffer any harm. In November, he was re-elected President. The media, however, was not willing to move on so easily. Investigative coverage by publications such as Time Magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post highlighted repeatedly the connection between the Watergate incident and the re-election committee. The media involvement led to a dramatic increase of publicity which determined political repercussions.

Reporters from The Washington Post suggested that the entire affair of the break-in and the cover up was linked to the upper branches of the FBI, CIA, the Justice Department, and most surprisingly, the White House. They had an anonymous source, known as “Deep Throat”, which was only identified in 2005. He was William Mark Felt, who worked as the deputy director of the FBI during the 1970s. The reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, met Felt secretly several times and found that the White House staff were highly concerned with what the Watergate investigations might reveal. Felt was also responsible for anonymous leaks to Time Magazine and Washington Daily News.

Despite receiving all kinds of information from different sources, the media did not realize the massive implications of the scandal, and everyone focused on the 1972 presidential election. As the trials of the burglars proceeded, the media shifted its attention completely towards the scandal, especially since there was a profound level of distrust between the press and the Nixon administration. For Nixon it was evident that there was a clash between his administration and the press. He wanted to sanction the hostile media organizations by using the authority of the government agencies, which was something he had previously done. In 1969, the FBI wiretapped the phones of five reporters at Nixon’s request and in 1971, the White House explicitly asked for an audit of the tax return of a journalist from Newsday who had written articles about the financial operations of Nixon’s friend, Charles Rebozo.

To undermine the credibility of the press, the administration and its supporters resorted to accusations, claiming that the media was liberal and thus had a bias against the Republican administration. Despite the accusations, the media coverage on the Watergate scandal proved entirely accurate. Moreover, the competition typical of the media ensured wide and extensive investigations from different angles.

President Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon.

White House Involvement

While many expected the Watergate case to end with the conviction of the five burglars on January 1973, the investigations continued and the evidence against Nixon and his administration grew. To remove threats of incrimination, Nixon put forth a new cover up operation. The relationships between Nixon, his close aides, and other directly involved officials grew weary, as accusations were made from each side. On April 30, Nixon demanded the resignation of several of his aides, including Attorney General Kleindienst and White House Counsel John Dean. This urged the United States Senate to establish a committee in charge of the Watergate investigation. The hearings of the Senate Committee were broadcast and the live covering of the hearings run from May 17 to August 7, 1973. The estimations suggest that 85% of Americans watched at least portions of the hearings.

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By July 1973, the evidence against the President’s staff mounted, especially after the Senate Watergate Committee obtained testimony from Nixon’s former staff members. Forced to give a testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield confessed that the conversations in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, one of Nixon’s private offices, and other places were secretly taped by devices that automatically recorded everything.

The information gathered was of extraordinary importance for the investigations because it had the power to transform the entire course of events. Unsurprisingly, the new information led to a series of fierce court battles in which the president tried to keep the tapes hidden. The Senate requested Nixon to release the tapes, yet he refused, using as an excuse his executive privileges as president. Since the official prosecutor also refused to drop his request, Nixon demanded Attorney General and his deputy to fire him. Both men refused to follow the order and resigned in protest. Nixon did not stop here. Eventually, the Solicitor General Robert Bork complied with Nixon’s order and dismissed the prosecutor. While accomplishing his goal, Nixon discovered that his actions were heavily condemned by the public. On November 17, 1973, he spoke before 400 Associated Press managing editors to explain his decisions after accusations of wrongdoing. The Watergate investigation passed under the charge of new special prosecutor Leon Jaworksi.

Final Investigations

On March 1, 1974, seven former aides of Nixon, later known as the “Watergate Seven”, were indicted by the Grand Jury for conspiracy in hindering the Watergate investigation. President Nixon was named secretly unindicted co-conspirator. A month later, Nixon’s former appointments secretary was convicted of perjury before the Senate Committee. Just within a few days, the Republican lieutenant governor of California was indicted as well on charges of perjury.

Nixon’s main focus was deciding which recorded materials could be safely released to the public. His advisers argued whether the recordings should be edited to remove profanity and vulgarity. They eventually released an edited version after several debates.

Demonstrators in Washington, DC, with sign "Impeach Nixon."

Demonstrators in Washington, DC, with sign "Impeach Nixon."

Nixon Turns over Transcripts

In a public speech held on April 29, 1974, Nixon made an official announcement about the release of the transcripts. The reactions to the speech were positive, yet as more people read the transcripts over the following weeks, there was a wave of indignation among the public and the media. Former supporters of Nixon now asked for his resignation or impeachment. As a direct consequence, Nixon’s reputation deteriorated quickly and irreversibly. Even though the transcripts did not reveal criminal offenses, they showed a deplorable side of Nixon’s personality and his contempt for the United States and its institutions, as proved by the vindictive tone and vulgar language of the conversations.

On July 24, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that the executive privilege did not extend over the tapes in the United States v. Nixon trial regarding the access to the tapes. The president had the legal obligation of allowing government investigators access to the tapes. With no possibility to escape the decision of the court, Nixon complied. The Court ordered Nixon to release all the tapes to the special prosecutor. The tapes were made public on July 30, 1974, revealing crucial information. The entire cover up operations in the Watergate case were exposed through the recorded conversations between the president and his counsel, John Dean. Both Nixon and Dean were aware that their actions and those of their aides, including paying the burglary team for their silence, fell under obstruction of justice.

The audio recordings revealed extensive conversation between Nixon and his top staff members, in which he spoke openly about his attempts to force the FBI and CIA to cease investigation on the Watergate break-in. The recordings showed that Nixon was not only aware of the payments to the Watergate defendants, but also that he had approved them willingly. Further investigations on the recordings proved that more than 18 minutes of tape had been erased.

Watergate Documentary

Nixon’s Resignation

On February 6, 1974, the Judiciary Committee received approval to investigate the President for impeachment under articles such as obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. The decisive event in the impeachment process was the release of a new tape, which would later become known as “smoking gun”. Released on August 5, 1974, the tape contained a documented description of the cover up operation in all its stages. Nixon had denied for a long time any accusations of being involved in the scandal, but all his lies were fully exposed by the tape, destroying completely his credibility.

Threatened with impeachment by the House of Representatives and with conviction by the Senate, Nixon had to make a decision. On August 9, 1974, realizing that the impeachment was certain and he had no chance to keep his office, President Richard Nixon resigned. In his farewell address to the White House staff on that same day he said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,". His resignation finally put an end to the Watergate scandal, yet with disastrous results for the American democracy and political life. Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States shortly after Nixon's departure. The new president told the nation that "our long national nightmare is over." The results of the Watergate investigations led to the indictment of 69 people from which 48 were found guilty. Most of them were top administration officials of the White House.

On September 8, 1974, President Ford gave an unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. Ford felt the decision was in the best interest of the nation and would put this dark period in American political history in the past. Ford’s popularity dropped dramatically after his decision to pardon Nixon and most political observers believe that cost him the 1976 presidential election to the relative unknown governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

After his resignation, Richard and his wife, Pat Nixon, retired from public life to their home in San Clemente, California. Nixon did write six books on his presidency in hopes of salvaging his legacy that was tainted by the Watergate scandal. Nixon was never able to fully regain respect as a former president and elder statesman as the shadow of Watergate hung over him until his death in 1994.

Richard Nixon departing the White House after resigning.

Richard Nixon departing the White House after resigning.

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© 2017 Doug West


Anthony Davis from Dallas, Texas on April 13, 2017:

Very good read. I enjoyed it.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 03, 2017:

Very well thought out and researched.

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