On June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., discovered a piece of tape on the lock of the door that led to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a discovery that set off a chain of events that would ultimately bring down the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon. Afterward, Americans would wonder why Nixon and those around him risked so much on such a minor event while Nixon led in the election polls and the Democratic Party was in disarray. Indeed, Nixon would go on to win the election that November by a landslide.
The break-in at the Watergate was only part of a larger campaign designed by Nixon supporters to rattle Democratic candidates and tarnish the reputation of the whole party, which included harassment of Democratic candidates, negative campaign ads, two separate break-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and an additional break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Ellsberg had offered up the Pentagon Papers for public consumption, detailing the strategy—or lack thereof—for America's position in Vietnam.
Theodore H. White, chronicler of presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, points out in Breach of Faith that the Watergate break-in was riddled with mistakes. G. Gordon Liddy, adviser to Nixon, had been given $83,000 from Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) to provide the necessary equipment for the break-in. When the tape was placed over the lock, it was placed horizontally rather than vertically, which made it more noticeable. The tape had been spotted earlier in the day and removed by a security guard, yet it was replaced in the same position. As only outside personnel were used for the break-in, they were easy to spot as not belonging in the complex. The electronic surveillance equipment purchased
by Liddy was inferior and had no cutoff between those conducting the actual break-in and those listening in a hotel across the street. When the break-in was discovered, the police were led to E. Howard Hunt and Liddy in the hotel across the street. Furthermore, all participants had retained their own identification papers.
Instead of being honest with the American public and taking his advisers to task, Nixon immediately became embroiled in a cover-up that would slowly unravel over the following two years—leading to Nixon's resignation in August 1974. As the facts surrounding the break-in were made known, it was revealed that the Nixon presidency had been involved in serious manipulation and abuse of power for years. It seemed that millions of dollars coming from Nixon supporters had been used to pay hush money in an ill-advised attempt to hide the truth from Congress and the American people. Nixon, it was discovered, truly lived up to his nickname of “Tricky Dick.”
THE INVESTIGATION UNFOLDS
During the investigation, the names of Nixon's advisers would become as well known to the American people as those of Hollywood celebrities or sports heroes. Chief among these new celebrities were John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic affairs adviser, and Bob Haldeman, the president's chief of staff. Both would be fired in a desperate attempt to save the presidency. Another major player was John Dean, the young and ambitious counsel to the president. John Mitchell, the attorney general, and his wife, Martha, provided color for the developing story. Rosemary Woods, the president's personal secretary, stood loyally by as investigators kept demanding answers to the questions “what did the president know?” and “when did he know it?” The answers to those two questions provided the crux of the investigation. If it had been proved that Nixon was the victim of overenthusiastic supporters rather than a chief player in the scenario, his presidency could possibly have survived. When Nixon learned of the break-in was integral to understanding his part, if any, in the subsequent cover-up.
In the early days of the Watergate investigation, most media reported the break-in as a minor story with little national significance. However, two aggressive young reporters who worked for the Washington Post began to dig deeper into the background surrounding the actual crime. Aided by an informant who was identified at the time only as Deep Throat, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered one of the major stories of the twentieth century and became instrumental in forcing the first presidential resignation in U.S. history. (In 2005 it was revealed that Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI agent, was Deep Throat.)
As Congress began to hold congressional hearings, Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon presidential aide, revealed that a complex taping system had been installed to record conversations in the Oval Office, Camp David, the Cabinet rooms, and Nixon's hideaway office. Nixon's distrust of others would prove to be his own undoing. He fought to maintain control over the tapes and went so far as to fire a number of White House officials in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The Supreme Court did not accept Nixon's argument that the tapes contained only private conversations between the president and his advisers and, as such, were protected by executive privilege. From the moment in 1974 that the court in United States v. Nixon ordered the president to release the tapes, it was widely accepted that Nixon had lost the presidency.
The tapes released contained eighteen minutes of silence that have never been explained. In 1996 the lawsuit of historian Stanley I. Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen resulted in the release of more than 200 additional hours of tape. In Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, Kutler writes that the new information reveals that Nixon was intimately involved both before and after Watergate in abuses of power. A taped conversation on June 23, 1972, proved that Nixon and Haldeman talked about using the CIA to thwart the FBI investigation into the cover-up. When the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, Nixon told his advisers: “We're up against an enemy conspiracy. They're using any means. We're going to use any means.” This conversation helps illustrate Nixon's paranoia and his adversarial relationship with the American citizenry. It also points out his belief in his own invincibility.
In mid-1974, after Nixon had been named an unindicted coconspirator in the Watergate affair, the House of Representatives approved three articles of impeachment. These charges arose from months of listening to those involved in the Nixon presidency and Watergate cover-up explain the machinations of the Nixon administration in televised public hearings. To save themselves from serving time in prison, most Nixon cohorts were willing to implicate higher-ups. Ultimately, Hunt, Liddy, James McCord, and four Cuban Americans from Miami were convicted and served time in jail.
Until the final days of his presidency, Nixon insisted that he would survive. When he recognized that it was over and he had lost, Nixon went into seclusion. Reportedly, Alexander Haig, his last chief of staff, oversaw the dismantling of the presidency. On August 8, 1974, wearing a blue suit with a blue tie and a flag pin in his lapel, Nixon announced his resignation. The following day, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president of the United States.
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