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The Watergate Scandal: The Affair That Brought President Nixon’s Administration to Its Knees

In a letter sent to Bishop Mandell Creighton on April 5, 1887, Lord Acton famously quipped the following: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Populated with more Hitlers and Stalins than you can imagine, the twentieth century proved Lord Acton’s concerns more than just reasonable—it proved them right. During the 1970s, Acton’s prophetic words echoed all around the leading democratic country in the world as well, the USA.

Demonstrating the extent to which power can be abused, the Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading to a still-felt surge of distrust toward the government and the presidential position.

And this is how it unfolded.

Watergate Scandal Summary

June–November 1972: Something Is Rotten in the State of America

A casual investigation by two young “Washington Post” reporters into a “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Complex reveals foul play going all the way up to the highest echelons of the government.

June 17, 1972: The Watergate Break-In (I)

On June 17, 1972, five men—James W. McCord, Virgilio R. Gonzales, Frank A. Sturgis, Eugenio R. Martinez, and Bernard L. Barker—attempt to break in to the HQ of the Democratic National Committee located about a mile from the White House, at the Watergate Complex.

A security guard notices some tape on a door latch, and suspecting foul play, calls the police. They arrive just on time to catch the five men red-handed.

Ron Ziegler, White House press secretary, describes the incident as a “third-rate burglary.”

Watergate Scandal Summary

June 20, 1972: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Immediately after the break-in, The Washington Post sends one of its young crime reporters, Bob Woodward, to investigate the story. Another young reporter by the name of Carl Bernstein joins in, volunteering to make some phone calls.

Three days later, Bob Woodward has the first of his meetings with arguably the most famous informant in journalist history: Deep Throat.

The Watergate Scandal

August 1, 1972: “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds”

The Washington Post publishes the first in a series of articles written by Woodward and Bernstein.

Titled “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds,” the article reveals that a $25,000 cashier’s check, earmarked for the Nixon campaign, has somehow wound up in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars.

August 30, 1972: The White House Initial Cover-Up

Suspicions arise as to whether the Watergate break-in was just a usual burglary, but President Richard Nixon denies any such thing:

I can say categorically that… no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.

Aside, however, he tells, John Wesley Dean III, an attorney and consultant of his, to find ways to cover up the White House’s connection to the break-in.

On August 30, 1972, Nixon announces that Dean’s internal investigation has found no evidence of White House involvement in the break-in.

October 10, 1972: “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats”

After publishing a few more stories related to the Watergate Scandal (amid threats coming from the White House), on October 10, 1972, The Washington Post prints another article by Woodward and Bernstein, titled “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.”

Its opening two paragraphs make startling allegations:

FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.
The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of Justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic presidential contenders and—since 1971—represented a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort.

Very few people believe Woodward and Bernstein, with many doubting the credibility of their source, Deep Throat.

In fact, unlike The Washington Post, most of the media at the time concentrate on reporting related to the 1972 presidential election, where Richard Nixon is predicted to win.

November 7, 1972: Nixon Is Re-Elected

Richard Nixon wins the 1972 US presidential election by a landslide, taking 60% of the popular vote and winning 49 states; Washington D.C. is the only one won by his opponent, George McGovern, Democratic Senator of South Dakota.

Receiving almost 18 million votes more than McGovern, Nixon holds the record for the widest popular vote margin in US presidential election history to this day.

June 1971–June 1972: Flashbacks of a CREEP

Guided by their informant, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein keep following the trail of the money; their investigation uncovers that the Watergate break-in is just the tip of the iceberg.

November 5, 1968: Nixon Becomes the 37th President of the United States

Four years before his reelection, almost to the day, Richard Nixon defeats the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

February 16, 1971: The Installation of the Secret Taping System

At Richard Nixon’s order, H. R. Haldeman and his staff (including Deputy Assistant Alexander Butterfield) work with the US Secret Service to install a secret taping system which records all conversation in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room.

Three months later, microphones are added to Nixon’s private office in the Old Executive Office Building. The following year microphones are installed in the presidential lodge at Camp David as well.

June 13, 1971: The Pentagon Papers

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” the papers are released by Daniel Ellsberg, US military analyst, and chronicle America’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

The Papers demonstrate that the Johnson administration had systematically and thoroughly lied to both the public and the Congress.

September 3, 1971: The White House Plumbers

A week after the Pentagon Papers are released, the White House establishes a “Special Investigation Unit”—more colloquially known as the White House Plumbers—whose sole task is to stop or quickly respond to the leaking of classified information such as the ones disclosed by Ellsberg.

The unuttered—but key—phrase is: “by any means necessary.”

True to this dictum, on September 3, 1971, the White House Plumbers burglarize Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to dig up compromising info on the military analyst, with an obvious objective to discredit him later.

January 1972: Committee for the Re-Election of the President

At the beginning of 1971, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President is established.

Its members include some of the White House Plumbers (such as E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy), in addition to some new faces such as John N. Mitchell, the Campaign Director, Charles Colson, Kenneth H. Dahlberg, and others.

Though abbreviated as CRP, the Committee would later come to be derisively known as CREEP due to its involvement in the Watergate Scandal and the use of numerous dirty tricks in the campaign.

watergate scandal primary source

February 26, 1972: Muskie’s Crying Speech

On February 24, 1972, a letter reaches the editor of the Manchester Union Leader which implies that Senator Edmund Muskie, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, holds prejudice against French-Canadian Americans.

Two days later, Muskie delivers a famous “crying speech” apology, which severely harms his chances to beat George McGovern.

By the end of the year, it is revealed that the letter is forged by Donald Segretti and Ken W. Clawson, members of CREEP.

May 28, 1972: The Original Burglary

As evidence would later show, members of CREEP break into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters and steal copies of top-secret documents.

In addition, they bug the office’s phones.

June 17, 1972: The Watergate Break-In (II)

Because the original wiretaps failed to work properly, on June 17, CREEP returned to the Watergate building. At 2:30 a.m. five members of CREEP are arrested inside the DNC HQ.

1973: And Now, The End Is Near

On January 8, 1973, the Watergate break-in trials begin; in time, it evolves into a string of nationally televised hearings which eventually lead to unquestionable evidence that corroborates Woodward and Bernstein’s original claims.

January 30, 1973: Liddy and McCord Are Found Guilty

After pleading innocent, G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, and James McCord, a former CIA employee and security director of CREEP, are found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

E. Howard Hunt and four others involved plead guilty and, thus, end their trials.

February 7, 1973: The Foundation of Senate Watergate Committee

Established by the United States Senate Resolution 60, the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—colloquially known as Senate Watergate Committee—begins its work, with Senator Sam Ervin acting as is its chairman.

Its mission is to investigate the break-in at the DNC HQ and “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the presidential election of 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.”

April 30, 1973: The Scapegoats

Two weeks after an official White House statement reiterates that President Nixon had no prior knowledge of the Watergate Scandal, several White House officials— John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, and attorney general Richard Kleindienst—resign from their positions.

Yet another one, John W. Dean, is fired; Nixon makes this known appearing on national television. What he doesn’t know yet is that Dean has already started cooperating with the Watergate persecutors.

May 18, 1973: Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox

The Senate Watergate Committee begins televised hearings. Archibald Cox is appointed as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation.

June 25, 1973: John Dean’s 7-Hour-Long Statement

John Dean testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee, giving a 245-page prepared statement which lasts a total of seven hours.

In it, he makes claims that not only Nixon was involved in the break-in cover-up, but also that the White House had conducted political espionage for years.

July 16, 1973: Alexander Butterfield’s Explosive Testimony

The day of arguably the most explosive revelation during the trials: supposing that he is merely confirming Haldeman’s testimony, Alexander Butterfield says that Nixon’s office had been taped since 1971:

There is tape in the Oval Office…. Everything was taped… as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped.”

By letter, Sam Ervin demands the tapes from Nixon, who, almost immediately after Butterfield’s testimony, disconnects the tapes. Nixon declines to turn over the tapes, saying that

…the special nature of tape recordings of private conversations is such that these principles (of executive privilege) apply with even greater force to tapes of private presidential conversations than to presidential papers.

August 29, 1973: Judge Sirica’s Order

Federal Judge John Sirica orders Nixon to hand in the tapes to him to be examined in private. Nixon refuses to comply yet again and appeals all orders and subpoenas related to surrendering the tapes.

October 20, 1973: The Saturday Night Massacre

On October 19, 1973, Nixon proposes a compromise to the Senate Watergate Committee. Namely, instead of handing over the tapes, Nixon suggests giving the Committee a summary of the White House conversations, personally edited by him, and later verified by Senator John Stennis.

Archibald Cox declines this compromise and orders the President to hand him over the tapes.

Nixon orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson, instead, resigns. Then Nixon orders Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox; he too prefers to resign instead. Finally, Richard Nixon’s solicitor general, Robert Bork, fires Cox.

This astonishing sequence of events is dubbed by the press “The Saturday Night Massacre,” a name which stands to this day.

Ten days later, Leon Jaworski is named the new special prosecutor.

November 17, 1973: “I’m Not a Crook”

During a televised Q&A session with the Associated Press editors gathered at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Nixon famously says that “people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

November 21, 1973: The 18-Minute Gap

The White House reveals that two of the subpoenaed recordings are missing and that one of the delivered ones—dated June 20, 1972—has an 18-minute gap.

Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claims that she must have accidentally erased the part in question by pushing the wrong foot pedal while talking on the phone.

However, photos posted for the media undermine the likelihood of such occurrence, and, soon after, experts conclude that there are multiple erasures.

As a result, people start suspecting that evidence is being destroyed.

1974: What Happens in the White House (Doesn’t) Stay in the White House

The release of the White House tapes ends Richard Nixon’s political career: facing inevitable impeachment, on August 8, 1974, he becomes the only American President to resign from office.

March 1, 1974: The Watergate Seven

Seven members of Nixon’s former staff—known as the Watergate Seven—are indicted by a grand jury for their involvement in the post-Watergate break-in cover-up; many end up serving jail time. The Jury names Nixon an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

watergate events

April 30, 1974: The Transcripts

Ignoring the subpoenas, Nixon announces the release of 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the remaining White House tapes.

Even this turns public opinion against him: “Reading the transcripts is an emetic experience,” wrote the Providence Journal at the time, “one comes away feeling unclean.”

July 24, 1974: The Release of the White House Tapes

The Supreme Court unanimously (8–0) decides that the President must surrender all of the White House tapes. Nixon obliges six days later.

The tapes make known several crucial conversations, the most famous of which is one between the President and John Dean on March 21, 1973, in which Dean describes the Watergate cover-up as a “cancer on the presidency.”

A conversation between Nixon and Haldeman dated August 1, 1972, reveals that Nixon had both known about and approved the payments to the Watergate defendants:  “Well … they have to be paid. That’s all there is to that. They have to be paid.”

August 5, 1974: The “Smoking Gun Tape”

On August 5, 1974, a previously unknown conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, dated just six days after the Watergate break-in, is released.

The recording conclusively proves that Nixon and Haldeman obstructed justice by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that the Watergate break-in is a national security issue so as to prevent them from investigating further.

Referred to as “The Smoking Gun,” the tape proves—in the words of Nixon’s own lawyers—”that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers – for more than two years.”

August 8, 1974: The Resignation of Richard Nixon

Facing certain impeachment, Richard Nixon decides to resign:

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.
To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

Watergate scandal

1974–2014: It’s Different… “When the President Does It”

Three years after being pardoned by Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon apologizes to the American nation in an interview with British journalist David Frost. Yet, he would maintain his innocence until his death in 1994.

September 8, 1974. Ford Pardons Nixon

Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, issues Proclamation 4311 which gives Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed during his time as a president.

Described by The New York Times as a “profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act,” the pardon is often seen as one of the main reasons why Ford would lose the 1976 presidential election.

May 1977: The Nixon Interviews

In the month of May 1977, after spending two years away from public life, Richard Nixon grants British journalist Robert Frost an exclusive series of interviews.

In the first part of the interview, Nixon apologizes for his actions:

I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but think it’s all too corrupt… I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.

However, when asked about the legality of his actions in the third part of the interview, Nixon replies in a highly controversial manner: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

April 22, 1994: The Death of Richard Nixon

Four days after suffering a debilitating stroke, Richard Nixon dies at the age of 81, his image rehabilitated by a series of foreign trips and nine books.

May 31, 2005: The Identity of Deep Throat

The Washington Post confirms something strongly suspected by everybody—including Nixon—ever since the first Woodward and Bernstein article: Deep Throat had been none other but former FBI agent, Mark Felt. Persuaded by his daughter to reveal his identity, Felt acknowledges the fact.

Watergate scandal PDF

July 29, 2014: The Nixon Tapes

Four decades after Nixon’s resignation, historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter publish “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972.”

Final Notes

In total, the Watergate scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged, and 48 of them being found guilty.

Nixon’s abuse of presidential power had a long-lasting effect on American voters, creating a nationwide atmosphere of distrust and cynicism which, arguably, lasts to this day.

Furthermore, it made “-gate” an indispensable part of the English Dictionary: the suffix is still widely used to indicate almost any type of scandal.

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