What was Watergate?

Watergate set the standard for a big political scandal. Its impact can still be seen in journalists' tendency to attach the suffix -gate to every new scandal. It got its name from a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) offices in the Watergate, a plush hotel- apartment-office complex in Washington, D.C. It took place in the early hours of June 17, 1972, during that year's presidential campaign. The break-i n was discovered when an alert security guard saw that someone had tampered with the locks on the door to the DNC's offices. He called the Metropolitan Police, who arrived quickly and arrested five men inside the DNC offices.2

The men did not fit the profile of the ordinary burglar, as they were all wearing business suits or sport coats, and were carrying thousands of dollars in sequentially numbered $100 bills. They also had wiretapping equipment and cameras for photographing documents. Wiretapping is a federal crime, so the police called the FBI. It turned out that the men had broken in to replace wiretaps installed in a previous break-in.

The FBI soon found connections to campaign politics. Documents found on the burglars and in their hotel rooms linked them to President Nixon's campaign committee, the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), and to current and former members of his White House staff. The CRP was a high-profile operation: Attorney General John Mitchell resigned his office to manage the campaign as CRP director, and Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans resigned his office to become chief fundraiser as head of the CRP's finance committee.

President Nixon's Democratic opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, was the candidate of the party whose headquarters the burglars has broken into. So it was headline news when the FBI revealed that one of the burglars was CRP's head of security, and that the campaign committee's general counsel and another staff member had overseen the operation from a nearby hotel room.3

The FBI soon traced the burglars' $100 bills to a secret CRP slush fund consisting of unreported campaign contributions that had been laundered through a Mexican bank. This fund had been used to pay the Watergate burglars and to finance other espionage and sabotage activities against Democrats and people on the president's "enemies list." Although these discoveries revealed links to the White House, Mitchell took the heat for all of them and resigned as CRP director two weeks after the arrests.4

Two months later a federal grand jury indicted the five burglars and the two men who had supervised the break-in. None of these events had much effect on the election, which Nixon won in a landslide. He won 61 percent of the two-party vote, the biggest majority since FDR's slightly bigger victory in 1936.5

Things began to go downhill for the president in 1973. The trial of the Watergate burglars began on January 10, ten days before he was sworn in for a second term. Ten days after that, all seven men were convicted (five of them had already pleaded guilty). On February 7 the Senate voted unanimously to assign a special committee to investigate the break-i n, political espionage and sabotage, and the financing of the 1972 presidential campaigns. Senators Sam Ervin (D-NC) and Howard Baker (R-TN) were the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which came to be called the Watergate Committee.

Six weeks after that vote, one of the convicted burglars confessed that they had all lied under oath and had been paid hush money from the secret CRP slush fund. He also said the break-in was not a rogue operation but had been planned by higher-ups. The federal grand jury that had indicted the burglars reconvened to hear more testimony about those higher-ups.

The slow unfolding of events now began to speed up. Grand jury testimony forced the resignations of Nixon's two top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John R. Ehrlichman, and of Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst. The Watergate Committee began public hearings three weeks later. Then the new attorney general, Elliott Richardson, appointed Harvard Law professor Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to take over the Watergate investigation for the Department of Justice.

The Watergate Committee learned in July that President Nixon had used a White House taping system to record his Oval Office conversations. The committee subpoenaed all of the tapes, but Cox subpoenaed only tapes of specific conversations. Nixon refused to release any of the tapes, and ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Nixon then appointed Solicitor General Robert H. Bork as acting attorney general, and Bork did fire Cox.

The resignations and firing took place on October 20, 1973, a Saturday, and came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The immediate result of these events was increased demand for the tapes, from prominent Republicans in and out of Congress, the press, the public, and from the new special prosecutor Nixon was forced to appoint, Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski. In December the president finally did surrender some of the tapes, one of them with the famously unexplained eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap.

The tapes were enough to convince Jaworski, other prosecutors, and the grand jury that the president knew more than he had claimed. The grand jury indicted seven of Nixon's aides, including Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, for conspiracy to cover up crimes. It also listed the president himself as an "unindicted coconspirator." The Watergate Committee had already uncovered more break-ins, more secret funds, more hush money, and more perjury. Now it had evidence of a White House attempt to cover up its involvement in all those events. The hearings continued into 1974 and kept millions of Americans glued to their TV screens.

Two-thirds of Americans told pollsters the president should be impeached, and the Supreme Court voted 8-0 that President Nixon had to release the subpoenaed tapes. He released them all, including the "smoking gun" tape that showed he was involved in the cover-up less than a week after the Watergate break-in. Soon afterward he resigned to avoid certain impeachment. Never before in U.S. history had a president resigned. As the government helicopter carrying the former president lifted off from the back lawn of the White House, Vice President Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office from Chief Justice Warren Burger. The nation's first unelected vice president became the nation's only unelected president.6

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