The Government and Watergate

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
From: American Decades(Vol. 8: 1970-1979. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,555 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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A Third-Rate Burglary

At 2:00 A.M. on Saturday, 17 June 1972, four Cubans and a member of the Committee to Reelect the President, James W. McCord, were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The presence of McCord immediately raised suspicions of political intrigue, but on Monday, 19 June, the president's spokesman, Ron Ziegler, characterized the break-in as nothing more than a "third-rate burglary" and dismissed its importance. The burglary would lead to the first resignation of a president in American history and expose to the public a dark underside of politics they scarcely knew existed. Public cynicism about politics after Watergate would not only affect Nixon but the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

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As the Watergate affair increasingly preoccupied the American public, many began to speculate on the identity of one of the people responsible for exposing the scandal. "Deep Throat" (the title of a then-scandalous pornographic movie) was the pseudonym given by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to a key White House official who periodically provided them with information on the scandal. Deep Throat never gave the reporters fresh information; instead, during a series of secret meetings with Woodward, he would confirm or deny allegations the reporters had already acquired. Deep Throat's input was thus crucial in keeping Woodward and Bernstein on the right track in following a convoluted story with many dead ends. After Woodward and Bernstein published their account of the scandal in All The President's Men (1974), many readers began to wonder about Deep Throat's actual identity, as well as his motives. Some believed Deep Throat was National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the one high-level administration figure untouched by the scandal. Others speculated that Deep Throat was G. Gordon Liddy, the leader of the plumbers unit, who some believed was bitter toward his superiors in the Nixon administration. The question of Deep Throat's identity was never resolved, but Woodward and Bernstein's description of him in All The President's Men remains intriguing: an executive-branch official with long service in the government, literate, given to drink, who "was trying to protect the office (of the presidency), to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost."


Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Ail The President's Men (New York: Warner. 1974).

Background to Watergate

The motives and orders for the Watergate break-in have yet to be established; until scholars gain access to Nixon's personal papers and tapes, who ordered the break-in and why the break-in took place will remain unclear. It is known that the Nixon administration had already engaged in illegal harassment and surveillance of its political opponents; that the Nixon administration often preferred operating covertly to conducting policy publicly; and that Nixon, in early 1972 (when the Watergate affair was set in motion), was unsure of his prospects for reelection. Against this backdrop members of the Committee to Reelect the President (Nixon abbreviated it as CRP; almost everyone else, including his own staff, abbreviated it as CREEP) hatched plots to wiretap both Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern and Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O'Brien (whose office was located at Watergate). Both buggings failed; the Watergate arrest was for the second CREEP break-in at O'Brien's office, an attempt to replace a defective listening device. It is also known that six days following the arrests President Nixon directed his staff to thwart an FBI investigation of the case and cover up the connections between the burglars and CREEP. This order was the first of many attempts by the most powerful law-enforcement official in the United States to obstruct justice.

Woodward, Bernstein, and Sirica

President Nixon ordered a coverup because he feared that an investigation into the Watergate break-in would expose the numerous illegal activities of his administration. During the election Democrats who charged that Watergate represented wider political illegalities were dismissed as partisan, and the break-in had no effect on Nixon's campaign victory. The story would have died were it not for the criminal trial of the Watergate burglars and for two intrepid reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Wood-ward and Carl Bernstein. Woodward and Bernstein dug into the case; together with the federal judge overseeing the criminal trial, John J. Sirica, they kept the pressure on the White House for an explanation of the break-in and of McCord's connections to CREEP.

Damage Control

The White House sought desperately to isolate McCord, to suggest to the public that he or his superiors in CREEP ordered the break-in without the president's knowledge. CREEP immediately disavowed McCord (even as it secretly paid his legal fees). Files were destroyed; hush money was offered to the principals involved. The evidence was nonetheless un-mistakable that someone high up in the administration authorized the Watergate break-in. One by one, connections between the burglars and their superiors in CREEP were disclosed; one by one, connections between members of CREEP and the White House staff were revealed. Members of Nixon's staff moved to protect themselves from criminal prosecution. Resignations became commonplace. CREEP chairman John Mitchell and CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan left in the fall of 1972; White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, domestic-policy assistant John Ehrlichman, presidential counsel
The Senate Select Committees investigation into the Watergate scandal kept the American people transfixed in 1973 as the hearings were televised before a nationwide audience. Committee members included (left to right): Sen. Edward Gurney (R-Flo The Senate Select Committee's investigation into the Watergate scandal kept the American people transfixed in 1973 as the hearings were televised before a nationwide audience. Committee members included (left to right): Sen. Edward Gurney (R-Florida); Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tennessee), asst. chairman; Sen. Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina), chairman; Samuel Dash, chief counsel; and Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Georgia). © UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. John Dean, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst left on 30 April 1973. McCord informed Sirica that members of the Nixon administration had perjured themselves during his criminal trial. No one in the conspiracy was willing to take the blame for the crime, and eventually the questions Woodward and Bernstein sought to answer were how much did the president know, and when did he know it? The Democrats and the Congress also wanted to know the answer to these questions. On 7 February 1973 the Senate voted seventy to zero to establish a seven-man committee, headed by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina), to probe the Watergate case. Immediately following his second inauguration, after one of the greatest electoral victories in American history, Nixon was fighting for his political life.

Startling Revelations

The criminal trial of the Watergate burglars, Woodward and Bernstein's reporting, and the investigations of the Ervin committee kept the American people transfixed in 1973. In May a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, authorized by the Justice Department to study Watergate without interference from the White House, also began investigations. These sources brought forth startling revelations: a "dirty tricks" campaign against the Democrats; campaign-finance violations; the burglary of the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist;the enemies list; an attempt to forge documents and discredit former president Kennedy; the use of government funds to improve Nixon's private houses; Nixon's wiretap of his own brother, Donald; and improprieties with Nixon's income-tax returns. The Ervin committee's televised hearings climaxed in the stunning testimony of White House counsel Dean, which implicated the president in the Watergate cover-up. Even more damaging was the public testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield on 16 July. He revealed the existence of a secret recording system installed in the White House. Unbelievably, presidential decisions regarding Watergate were recorded on tape.

The Struggle for the Tapes

Ervin, Cox, and Sirica immediately pressed the White House to release the Watergate tapes to them. Nixon rejected their requests. He claimed the tapes were private property; he asserted that the tapes contained material that might compromise national security; he argued that he had a right to withhold them under the dubious constitutional claim of executive privilege—an idea that the president could decide for himself how much he might cooperate with other branches of the government. Nixon's rationalizations were a public-relations disaster. The press charged the president with stonewalling access to the truth of the Watergate affair. Nixon's popularity plummeted twenty-eight points in the polls, to below 40 percent. When the Ervin committee offered to review the tapes privately, Nixon still refused; when Cox and Sirica subpoenaed seven of the tapes, Nixon nonetheless withheld them, challenging their authority to investigate the White House.

The Saturday Night Massacre

On 12 October the U.S. District Court of Appeals ordered Nixon to turn over the subpoenaed Watergate tapes to Cox and Sirica. Instead Nixon proposed releasing prepared transcripts of the tapes. The decision infuriated Special Prosecutor Cox, who attacked the administration for noncompliance. Nixon responded by ordering Cox to be fired, but Attorney General Richardson, who had promised the Senate in his confirmation hearing that he would not interfere with the special prosecutor, refused. Nixon then fired Richardson and ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused, and Nixon fired Ruckelshaus. Nixon finally persuaded Solicitor General Robert Bork to dismiss Cox. The FBI then moved in and sealed off the offices of the three terminated men from their staff. The public was outraged, and the press termed the firings the "Saturday Night Massacre." Calls for Nixon's impeachment echoed in Congress. Nixon's popularity rating dropped to an unprecedented low of 22 percent. Even worse for Nixon was the fact that the negative public response ensured that the new attorney general and new special prosecutor could not appear to be even slightly favorable to the administration. These new officials—Attorney General William Saxbe (former senator from Ohio) and Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a Houston lawyer—pursued the Watergate investigation as zealously as had Richardson and Cox.

The White House Transcripts

By the end of October Nixon still had not complied with court orders for the tapes. In fact, he announced that two of the subpoenaed tapes did not even exist. Critics charged Nixon with destroying the tapes. The charges became more plausible after he revealed that another of the subpoenaed tapes had a mysterious 18.5-minute gap in it. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed she had accidentally erased part of the tape, but the explanation satisfied few and confirmed the suspicions of those afraid that Nixon would doctor the tapes in his possession. In an effort to turn the tide of public opinion, on 29 April 1974 Nixon released a 1,308-page edited transcript of the Watergate tapes. He maintained that the transcripts proved that he did not know about the Watergate cover-up until 21 March 1973. Nixon hoped the publication of the transcripts would restore public confidence in his candor; instead, the transcripts, with "expletive deleted" peppered across the pages, embarrassed the president and made him the object of ridicule.


Indictments and convictions for criminal wrongdoing further eroded the president's public support. McCord and G. Gordon Liddy, his superior at CREEP, were convicted of the Watergate break-in in January 1973. In June and July 1974 White House aides Charles Colson and Ehrlichman were found guilty of conspiracy and perjury in the Ellsberg break-in. CREEP official Dwight Chapin was sent to prison for his role in covering up the dirty-tricks campaign. White House counsel Dean was found guilty of conspiracy and began to cooperate with prosecutors. CREEP officials Mitchell and Maurice Stans were placed on trial for campaign-financing violations. Vice-president Agnew, who so often made law and order the theme of his speeches, was investigated by the Justice Department for criminal charges unrelated to Watergate. On 10 October 1973 Agnew resigned the vice-presidency and pleaded no contest to one count of income-tax evasion. In return for the plea the Justice Department dropped other counts of bribery and extortion associated with Agnew's tenure as governor of Maryland. Finally, on 1 March 1974 Special Prosecutor Jaworski secured from a federal grand jury indictments for obstruction of justice against seven Nixon aides—including Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman. The grand jury found Nixon to be an "unindicted co-conspirator" because Jaworski doubted that a sitting president was subject to criminal indictment by a grand jury. Under the Constitution only Congress could indict a president for criminal wrongdoing, a process known as impeachment. During the impeachment process the House of Representatives determines whether an indictment is justified, and then the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over a trial, with the Senate

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acting as jury. If the president is found guilty of high crimes or misdemeanors, he can be removed from office.

United States v. Richard Nixon

With impeachment on the horizon, Judge Sirica turned over Watergate evidence to the House Judiciary Committee, impaneled to draw up articles of impeachment upon which the full House would vote. With meticulous care and the assistance of politically independent attorney John Doar, chairman Peter Rodino (D-New Jersey) sifted through the evidence. Rodino and Doar believed that a conversation Nixon had with Haldeman on 23 June 1972 would reveal whether or not the president had obstructed justice. As had Jaworski, they subpoenaed Nixon for the tape of that conversation and of others, but he refused to cooperate, again citing executive privilege and the already-published White House transcripts. It was left to the Supreme Court to decide the merit of Nixon's claim. On 24 July 1974, in United States v. Richard M Nixon, they unanimously upheld the constitutionality of executive privilege but denied that it applied to the Watergate tapes; they ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes—including the 23 June tape—to Jaworski. Then, on 30 July, the House Judiciary Committee recommended to the full House that it vote to impeach the president for three offenses: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.


With the Supreme Court ruling against him and the House about to vote on his impeachment, Nixon was trapped. On 5 August transcripts of the 23 June conversation became available to the public. It was the smoking gun Nixon's supporters feared, proving that the president had ordered a cover-up. His defenders were stunned, and leading Republicans went to the White House to report that Nixon had lost all congressional support. On 8 August 1974 in a televised address, Nixon resigned the presidency, effective at noon the following day. Vice-president Gerald R. Ford, who had assumed the office after Agnew resigned, became the thirty-eighth president of the United States.


At his inaugural President Ford announced an end to "our long national nightmare," but Watergate and its effect on American political life did not easily disappear. Nixon had repeatedly charged that the crimes of his administration were no different than the activities of previous (Democratic) presidencies. Investigators and historians substantiated the charges: Kennedy and Johnson had also made secret tapes, profited from their offices, and engaged in dirty political tricks. Along with Watergate, such revelations induced a new public cynicism toward politics, a cynicism reflected in increasing voter apathy. More directly, character became the fore-most issue in presidential politics. In 1976 voters found in Jimmy Carter a politician whose honesty and integrity seemed unassailable. They could have found the same qualities in President Ford, a man noted for his decency, but for one act of Ford's presidency: on 8 September 1974, to spare Nixon the indignity of undergoing a criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice, Ford granted Nixon a "full, free and absolute pardon." Within a week Ford's popularity fell from 71 percent to 49 percent—the largest single drop in polling history. Ford never recovered. Like the seventy Nixon administration members found guilty and punished for criminal activities, Ford's association with Nixon was nothing if not destructive.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468302690