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Watergate scandal

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The Watergate building.
The Watergate building.

The Watergate scandal (or just "Watergate") was an American political scandal and constitutional crisis of the 1970s, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The affair was named after the hotel where the burglary that led to a series of investigations occurred.


The burglary

On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard working at the office complex of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. noticed a piece of tape on the door between the basement stairwell and the parking garage. It was holding the door unlocked, so Wills removed it, assuming the cleaning crew had put it there. Later on, he returned to discover the tape had been replaced. Upon seeing this, Wills contacted the D.C. police.

After the police arrived, five men—Bernard Barker, Virgilio González, Eugenio Martínez, James W. McCord, Jr. and Frank Sturgis—were discovered and arrested for breaking into the office of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The men had broken into the office three weeks earlier as well, and they had returned to fix wiretaps that were not working and, according to some suggestions, photograph documentation.

The need to break into the office for a second time was just the highlight of a number of mistakes made by the burglars. Another one proved costly to them—and the White House—when police found the telephone number of E. Howard Hunt in Barker's notebook. Hunt had previously worked for the White House while McCord, at the time of his arrest, was officially employed as Chief of Security at the Committee to Re-elect the President (official abbreviation CRP but usually referred to as CREEP); so this quickly suggested that there was a link between the burglars and someone close to the President. However, Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary, dismissed the affair as a "third-rate burglary."

At his arraignment, McCord identified himself as an agent of the CIA. The Washington, D.C., 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. A reporter from the Washington Post by the name of Bob Woodward was present at the arraignment, and he, along with his colleague Carl Bernstein, began an investigation into the burglary over the following months. Most of what they published was known to the FBI and other governmental investigators—these were often the sources—but they helped keep Watergate in the spotlight and embarrass the White House. Woodward's relations with a principal inside source codenamed "Deep Throat," whose identity has yet to be revealed, added an extra layer of mystery to the affair.

President Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman were tape-recorded (a standard, but secret, Nixon practice) on June 23 discussing use of the Central Intelligence Agency to obstruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation's investigation of the Watergate break-ins. Nixon followed through by asking the CIA to slow the FBI's investigation of the crime—claiming, speciously, that national security would be put at risk. In fact, the crime and numerous other "dirty tricks" had been undertaken on behalf of CREEP, mainly under the direction of Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. They had also previously worked in the White House in the Special Investigations Unit, nicknamed the "Plumbers". This group investigated leaks of information the administration did not want publicly known, and ran various operations against the Democrats and anti-war protesters. Most famously, they broke into the office of the psychologist of Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, a former employee of the The Pentagon and State Department, had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and as a result was prosecuted for espionage, theft, and conspiracy. Hunt and Liddy found nothing useful, however, and trashed the office to cover their tracks. The break-in was only linked to the White House much later, but at the time it caused the collapse of Ellsberg's trial due to evident government misconduct.

There is still much dispute about the level of involvement of leading figures in the White House, such as Attorney General John Mitchell, chief of staff Haldeman, leading aides Charles Colson and John Ehrlichman, and Nixon himself. Mitchell, as the head of CREEP, along with campaign manager Jeb Stuart Magruder and Fred LaRue, approved Hunt and Liddy's espionage plans, including the break-in, but whether it went above them is unclear. Magruder, for instance, provided a number of different accounts, including having 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 Campaign Committee.

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 by CREEP 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 in the burglary and the payoff for the burglars' silence, and admitted to perjury.

The Senate investigation

The link of the Watergate burglary to the President's re-election campaign fundraising committee increased dramatically the profile of the crime, and the consequent political stakes. Instead of ending with the trial and conviction of the burglars, the investigations grew broader than ever; a Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin was set up to examine Watergate and started to subpoena White House staff.

On April 20, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignations of two of his most powerful aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, 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 become 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.

The tapes

The hearings held by the Senate Watergate Committee, in which Dean was the star witness and in which many other former key administration officials gave dramatic 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, deputy assistant to the President, 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 compelled the resignations of Richardson and then his deputy in a search for someone in the Justice Department willing to fire Cox. This search ended with Robert Bork, and the new acting department head dismissed the special prosecutor. Allegations of wrongdoing caused Nixon to famously state "I am not a crook" in front of 400 Associated Press managing editors at Walt Disney World in Florida on November 17.

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, 18½ portion of one tape, which had never been out of White House custody, was found to have been erased. The White House blamed this on Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong foot pedal on her tape player while answering the phone. However, as photos splashed all over the press showed, for Woods to answer the phone and keep her foot on the pedal involved a stretch that would have challenged many a gymnast. She was then said to have held this position for the full 18½ minutes. Later forensic analysis determined that the gap had been erased several—perhaps as many as nine—times over, refuting the "accidental erasure" explanation..

This issue of access to the tapes 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.

Articles of impeachment, resignation, and convictions

On March 1, 1974, the "Watergate Seven," former aides of the president—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian , and Kenneth Parkinson —had been indicted for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury also secretly named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. Dean, Magruder and other figures in the scandal had already pleaded guilty.

Colson in his book Born Again stated that he was given a report by a White House aide that clearly implicated the CIA in the whole Watergate scandal and showed an attempt to implicate him as the one responsible.

Nixon's position was becoming increasingly precarious, and 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 bogus 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 ten congressmen who had voted against the Articles of Impeachment in committee announced that they would all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House.

Nixon leaving the White House after his resignation, August 9, 1974
Nixon leaving the White House after his resignation, August 9, 1974

Nixon's support in the Senate was weak as well. After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to convict him, Nixon decided to resign. In a nationally televised address on the evening of August 8, 1974, he announced he would resign effective noon on August 9. 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 widely-scoped pardon for Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed as President. Nixon proclaimed his innocence until his death, but his acceptance of the pardon implied otherwise in the eyes of many. Accepting a presidential pardon is voluntary and constitutes a legal admission of guilt, as opposed to a commutation of sentence which cannot be denied since legal guilt was established at the time of conviction.

As for Nixon's aides, Dean pleaded guilty and served four months in protective custody as a cooperating witness. Colson later pled guilty to charges concerning the Ellsberg case; in exchange, the indictment against him for covering up the activities of CREEP was dropped, as it was against Strachan. The remaining five members of the Watergate Seven indicted in March went on trial in October 1974, and on January 1, 1975, all but Parkinson were found guilty. In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Mardian; subsequently, all charges against him were dropped. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell exhausted their appeals in 1977. Ehrlichman voluntarily entered prison in 1976 and the other two entered prison in 1977.


The effects of the Watergate scandal did not by any means end with the resignation of President Nixon and the imprisonment of some of his aides. Indirectly, Watergate was the cause of new laws leading to extensive changes in campaign financing. It was a major factor in the passage of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act in 1986, 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 non-existent.

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.

Since Nixon and many senior officials involved in Watergate were lawyers, the scandal severely tarnished the public image of the legal profession. In order to defuse public demand for direct federal regulation of lawyers (as opposed to leaving power in the hands of the lawyer-controlled state bar associations), the American Bar Association launched two major reforms. First, the ABA decided that its existing Model Code of Professional Responsibility (promulgated 1969) was a failure, and replaced it with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983. The MRPC has been adopted in part or in whole by 44 states. Its preamble contains an emphatic reminder to young lawyers that the legal profession can remain self-governing only if lawyers behave properly. Second, the ABA promulgated a requirement that law students at ABA-approved law schools must take a course in professional responsibility (which means they must study the MRPC). The requirement is still in effect today.

So much did the Watergate scandal affect the national and international consciousness that many scandals since then have been labelled with the suffix "-gate"—such as Contragate or Whitewatergate, Travelgate in South Africa and even PEMEXGATE and Toallagate in Mexico. In 2003 a scandal involving a group of Poland's key political figures and a Polish media magnate Lew Rywin was frequently referred to in Polish media as "Rywingate" The idea of scandals ending in "-gate" is itself lampooned in Tim Dorsey's novel Orange Crush, where a fraudulent campaign manager is overjoyed to find that after years of trying to get a "-gate" scandal of his own, he has committed "Seniorgate" at a retirement home.

See also

External links

  • White House tape transcripts
  • The White House tapes themselves
  • Washington Post Watergate Archive
  • Washington Post Watergate Tape Listening Guide
  • BBC News reports on Watergate
  • - The Scandal That Destroyed Pres. Richard Nixon

Last updated: 02-03-2005 07:22:52
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55