From Beachgate to Russiagate, every government scandal that emerges is always ended with a “-gate” suffix. This stems from the historic 20th-century Watergate transgressions that took down President Richard Nixon and forever altered the state of U.S. politics and America’s perception of its elected leaders. What was Watergate, and why is it still relevant a half-century later? Grab your bell-bottoms, take a look at The Blue Marble photograph of the Earth, and tell the world “I am not a crook.”
Watergate: A Primer
In June 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in the nation’s capital. They were allegedly there to steal copies of top-secret documents and bug office phones. They were caught after a hotel security guard discovered someone had taped over several door locks, prompting him to call the police. Officers had caught the men at the scene of the crime. It was initially considered to be an ordinary burglary, but the criminal activity quickly transformed into the worst political scandal of the 20th century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. What happened over the next two years?
The Fallout of Watergate
In October 1972, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published a story that stated the FBI believed that aides to President Richard Nixon were responsible for the burglary, igniting a tidal wave of news stories, statements, hearings, and resignations. The White House denied any involvement in the incident, and the country ostensibly believed the president on Election Day.
Although Nixon had won re-election in a landslide with 520 electoral college votes and 60.7% of the popular vote, the president’s second term was marred in scandal. In the following months, heavyweights within the Nixon White House resigned, including Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and White House counsel John Dean. Also, seven men were indicted by a grand jury for their involvement in wiretapping and stealing DNC documents – they were later found guilty or pleaded guilty:
- Bernard Baker: Watergate burglar.
- Virgilio Gonzalez: Watergate burglar.
- Howard Hunt: Former CIA agent and organizer of the Watergate break-in.
- Gordon Libby: Former FBI agent and organizer of the Watergate break-in.
- Eugenio Martinez: Watergate burglar.
- James McCord: Former CIA agent and Watergate burglar.
- Frank Sturgis: Watergate burglar.
The Senate Watergate Committee, also known as the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, initiated hearings into the Watergate incident in May 1973, which was televised across the country. It was chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC), Sen. Howard Baker (R-TN) was the GOP ranking member, and Archibald Cox was appointed special prosecutor.
Dean became a star witness, testifying about the White House and Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Former White House aide Alexander Butterfield would reveal that the president had maintained secret records of all his White House conversations since 1971. These recordings were requested by the committee, prompting two subpoenas, which Nixon had formally turned down. A judge had ordered the president to turn them over to the committee, but he appealed all subpoenas.
Eventually, by July 1974, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled against President Nixon’s “absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.” This forced Nixon to immediately hand over the original recordings of more than five-dozen conversations. In that same month, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon. The tapes were transferred to Leon Jaworski, a special prosecutor.
With the walls closing in on his administration, Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974:
“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.”
A day later, Nixon signed his resignation, allowing Vice President Gerald Ford to become president. A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon.
Woodward and Bernstein received most of their information from an anonymous whistleblower. In 2005, it was revealed that W. Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI, was the source.
How Did It Change America?
Every scandal that emanates from city hall, the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, Capitol Hill, and the White House erodes public confidence in politicians and the government.
One of the most significant and long-lasting consequences of the Watergate scandal was its impact on trust in the system. While Watergate was neither the first nor last impropriety of elected officials, it was one of the biggest black eyes on the U.S. political system since the president had repeatedly denied for nearly two years that he had anything to do with the break-in. It also did not improve matters when Nixon told host David Frost in 1977 that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
What Did Watergate Tell Us About Politics?
The history of the United States is complete with honorable statesmen who constructed the almost mythical innocence of the nation’s political system. Be it President George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” or President Abraham Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” designation, the world’s greatest experiment had often been viewed as a pristine foundation with a focus on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But this perception of the political landscape has vanished over the years, accelerated throughout the 20th century and accentuated by Watergate. On the one hand, Watergate exposed the corruptible nature of the highest office in the Land of the Free. On the other, it also highlighted checks and balances in Washington. Most important of all, it revealed that no president is above the law.