Watergate is an impressive hotel, apartment, and office complex that overlooks the Potomac River near an old canal lock. It was built between 1964 and 1971. The name evolved to become an all-embracing label for political corruption, intrigue, and the misuse of presidential authority. Watergate, in the lexicon of U.S. politics, is simply synonymous with scandal. In the period from 1972 to 1974 the scandal emerged as an interconnected series of events and deeds that would destroy the Richard Nixon presidency and lead to his resignation on August 9, 1974. In its wake, Watergate produced a national crisis in leadership and a lasting sense of national betrayal.
The Watergate crisis began with a burglary on June 17, 1972. A security guard discovered a suspicious tape holding a stairwell door open, and this prompted him to contact Washington police. The police discovered and arrested on the scene Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord, Jr., and Frank Sturgis. The men were in the process of breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. They also had wiretapping equipment. McCord, a former CIA operative, was the chief of security at the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, or CREEP), and in his possession was the telephone number of E. Howard Hunt, a possible incriminating direct link to the White House.
After a White House dismissal of the affair, the burglary could have passed into obscurity in this 1972 presidential election year if there had not been continuing media attention, driven by the efforts of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Making use of FBI sources, the reporters launched a deep probe of the events. The outcome was that the burglary began to appear as one part of a complex dirty-tricks campaign by Nixon cronies.
The basis for such suspicions rested largely with E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who were tied to the Special Investigations Unit of the White House, known as the “Plumbers.” This group was active in undermining administration opponents through a variety of nefarious schemes such as breaking into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon and State
Department employee. As the future would reveal, these actions would have unfortunate consequences for the president. The Watergate burglary itself had the approval of former attorney general John Mitchell and the support of leading White House personnel such as Charles Colson and John Ehrlichman, in addition to the president’s campaign manager, Jeb Magruder. Few believed that any of these men would have acted without the personal approval of the president.
The Watergate burglars, along with Liddy and Hunt, went on trial in January 1973. All pleaded guilty except McCord and Liddy. All were convicted of burglary, wiretapping, and conspiracy. The defendants initially refused to talk, and the judge, John Sirica, ordered long sentences unless there was greater cooperation. This brought about McCord’s admission that the campaign was behind the burglary and had arranged payments to guarantee silence.
With the McCord admission, the political stakes were considerably raised, leading to a Senate investigation chaired by Senator Sam Ervin. Watergate was now on the national agenda, and White House staff faced subpoenas to testify. Nixon’s close advisers H. R. Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, and White House counsel John Dean was fired. A new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, was also appointed. Richardson appointed Archibald Cox to head an independent inquiry.
The Senate investigation was televised from May 17 until August 7, 1973, and many former White House officials testified, including John Dean. The testimonies produced disastrous results for the president. The situation became even more complex after a White House official, Alexander Butterfield, admitted the existence of a White House taping system, which seemed to offer a way of finding the truth. The tapes then became part of the subpoena process.
Nixon thought that this particular intrusion represented an attack on executive privilege. He ordered the attorney general to dismiss Cox if he didn’t cancel the subpoena. This led to what has come to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” which produced the resignation of Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and as a desperate compromise gesture released the tapes in an edited form. The tapes seemed to cause not less but more distress for Nixon, particularly after it was revealed that there had been an 18-minute erasure as well as many additional erasures. Ultimately, the issue of the tapes was resolved on July 24, 1974, when the Supreme Court in its decision
United States v. Nixon denied the presidential claim of executive privilege.
Nixon’s position throughout 1974 had also been progressively undercut through an ever-increasing series of guilty pleas by White House associates. In January campaign aide Herbert Porter admitted lying to the FBI; in February Nixon’s lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, pleaded guilty to illegal electioneering; and in March the so-called Watergate Seven were all indicted for conspiring to interfere with the Watergate investigation. To make matters worse, other Watergate grand jury indictments followed in April when Ed Reinecke, a lieutenant governor of California and a Nixon campaigner, was charged with three counts of perjury. Also in April Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, admitted perjury and lying to the Senate and a grand jury.
The situation for Nixon was now without redemption. The House of Representatives began preparations for impeachment following a July 27, 1974, vote of 27 to 11 by the House Judiciary Committee on obstruction of justice charges. Other impeachment articles followed on July 29 and 30. The release in early August of a damning tape from June 23, 1972, which revealed Nixon and Haldeman discussing possibilities for blocking FBI investigations, proved to be the final blow that toppled Nixon from power.
Without support in the House and little promise of support in the Senate, Richard M. Nixon announced to the nation on August 8, 1974, that he would resign as of noon on August 9, 1974, becoming the first U.S. president to do so. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford. Ford, on September 8, pardoned Nixon and thus saved him from criminal prosecution. Until his death, Nixon maintained his innocence. Watergate poisoned the political waters of the nation and left a jaundiced, cynical view of politicians and their promises. When stripped of their offices and the emblems of power, the politicos appeared disgraceful, dishonest purveyors of power for power’s sake without regard for the well-being of the democracy. This would create a lasting legacy of paranoid suspicions and give rise to a climate receptive to conspiracy theories.
On a more positive note, the events surrounding Watergate led to reforms in campaign financing as well as the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1986. The media became a much stronger voice, particularly as the nation moved toward news coverage on a 24-7 basis. This led to the quandary of instant analysis, often incorrect, which can shape policy and possibly undermine the best democratic interests of the nation.
Richard Nixon (right) departs the White House after his resignation. His administration was devastated by the Watergate scandal.
The cult of personality and celebrity has now perhaps replaced the cult of power.
See also presidential impeachment, U.S.