Watergate was an American political scandal and constitutional crisis of the
1970s, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
On June 17, 1972 a group of five men were arrested while attempting to break
into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate
Office Building in Washington, D.C.. The men were Bernard Baker, Virgilio
Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord, Jr. and Frank Sturgis. McCord,
being connected with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), caused
some speculation linking the crime with the White House, leading Nixon's
press secretary Ron Ziegler to dismiss it as a "third-rate burglary". At his
arraignment McCord identified himself as CIA. The Washington DC district
attorney's office began an investigation of the links between McCord and the
CIA, and eventually determined that McCord was in receipt of payments from
CREEP. Two reporters from the Washington Post newspaper present at the trial
- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - began an investigation and subsequently
published a series of articles that outlined some of the details from the
The president, however, asked the CIA to slow the FBI's investigation of the
crime, by claiming that "National Security" would be put at risk. In fact,
the crime, and numerous other "dirty tricks", had been planned in the White
House by CREEP head John Mitchell, the Attorney General, probably with the
President's knowledge. Mitchell's assistant, Jeb Stuart Magruder, confirmed
that he overheard Nixon order Mitchell to conduct the break-in in order to
gather intelligence about the activities of Larry O'Brien, the director of
the Democratic Campiagn Committee. A special investigation unit had been set
up in June 1971 by the White House - a group of 'plumbers' under the
direction of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt investigated leaks and ran
various operations against the Democrats. The Watergate break-in was a
second visit to replace an earlier installed bug that was faulty.
On January 8, 1973, the original burglars along with Liddy and Hunt went to
trial. All except McCord and Liddy pleaded guilty, but they were all found
guilty of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. The accused had been paid to
plead guilty but say nothing, and this angered the trial judge John Sirica
(known as "Maximum John" because of his harsh sentencing). Sirica handed
down thirty-year sentences but indicated he would reconsider if the group
would be more cooperative. McCord complied, implicated CREEP, and admitted
to perjury. Thus, instead of ending with the trial and conviction of the
burglars, the investigations grew broader than ever; a Senate Committee was
set up to examine Watergate and started to subpoena White House staff.
On April 30, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignations of two of his most
powerful aides, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff) and John
Ehrlichman (Domestic affairs advisor), both of whom would soon be indicted
and ultimately go to prison. He also fired the White House counsel, John
Dean, who had just testified before the Senate and would go on to became the
key witness against Nixon himself. On the same day, Nixon named a new
Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and gave him authority to designate a
special counsel for the growing Watergate inquiry, who would be independent
of the regular Justice Department hierarchy to preserve his independence. On
May 18, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position. The televised
hearings began in the United States Senate the day before.
Seven Nixon aides were indicted for their role in the Watergate scandal and
charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice on March 1, 1974.
The Watergate Tapes
The Senate hearings held by the Senate Watergate Committee, in which Dean
was the star witness and many other former key administration officials gave
damaging testimony, were broadcast through most of the summer, causing
devastating political damage to Nixon. The Senate investigators also
discovered a crucial fact on July 13: Alexander Butterfield revealed during
an interview with a committee staff member that a taping system in the White
House automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office - tape recordings
that could prove whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth about key
meetings. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by both Cox and the Senate.
Nixon refused, citing the theory of executive privilege, and ordered Cox,
via Attorney General Richardson, to drop his subpoena. Cox's refusal led to
the "Saturday Night Massacre" on October 20, 1973, when Nixon fired
Richardson and then his deputy in a search for an Attorney General willing
to fire Cox. This search ended with Robert Bork, and the new Attorney
General fired Cox.
While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he did agree to
release edited transcripts of a large number. These largely confirmed Dean's
account, and caused further embarrassment when a crucial,
eighteen-and-a-half-minute portion of one tape, which had never been out of
White House custody, was found to have been erased.
This issue went all the way to the Supreme Court and on July 24, 1974 the
Court unanimously ruled in United States v. Nixon that Nixon's claim of
executive privilege over the tapes was void and they further ordered him to
surrender them to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. On July 30 he complied
with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes.
In 1974, the House of Representatives began formal investigations into the
possible impeachment of the President. The House Judiciary Committee voted
27 to 11 on July 27, 1974 to recommend the first article of impeachment
against the President: obstruction of justice. Then on July 29 the second
article, abuse of power, was passed and on July 30 the third, contempt of
Congress, was also passed.
In August, a previously unknown tape was released for June 23, 1972,
recorded only a few days after the break-in, in which Nixon and Haldeman
formulated the plan to block investigations by raising fictional national
security claims. The tape was referred to as a "smoking gun". With this last
piece of evidence, Nixon's few remaining supporters deserted him. The 10
congressmen who had voted against the Articles of Impeachment in Committee
announced that they would now all support impeachment when the vote was
taken in the full House. Nixon's support in the Senate was now equally weak.
After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to
convict him, Nixon decided to resign, which he did on August 9, 1974.
Ultimately, Nixon was never actually impeached or convicted, since his
resignation voided the issue. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who on
September 8 issued a pardon for Nixon.
The effects of the Watergate scandal did not by any means end with the
resignation of President Nixon. Indirectly, Watergate was the cause of new
laws leading to extensive changes in campaign financing. It was a major
factor in the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as laws
requiring new financial disclosures by key government officials. While not
legally required, other types of personal disclosure, such as releasing
recent income tax forms, became expected. Knowing he was comfortably ahead
in the 1972 election, Nixon refused to debate his opponent, George McGovern.
No major candidate for the presidency since has been able to avoid debates.
Previous Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had recorded many of their
conversations but after Watergate this practice became virtually
Watergate led to a new era in which the mass media became far more
aggressive in reporting on the activities of politicians. For instance, when
Wilbur Mills, a powerful congressman, was in a drunken driving accident a
few months after Nixon resigned, the incident, similar to others which the
press had previously never mentioned, was reported, and Mills soon had to
resign. In addition to reporters becoming more aggressive in revealing the
personal conduct of key politicians, they also became far more cynical in
reporting on political issues. A new generation of reporters, hoping to
become the next Woodward and Bernstein, embraced investigative reporting and
sought to uncover new scandals in the increasing amounts of financial
information being released about politicians and their campaigns.