Watergate Scandal

views updated

Watergate Scandal

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested during a break-in-gone-bad at the Democratic Party campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel-apartment-office complex in Washington, D.C. It was later discovered that the crime was committed at the request of the Committee to Reelect the President, who at the time was Republican Richard M. Nixon (1913–1993; served 1969–74). The scandal involved major figures in the Nixon administration. When it was proven in 1974 that Nixon was involved in the cover-up of the affair, if not the actual break-in, he became the first American president to resign from office.

The purpose of the Watergate break-in was to place wiretaps on the telephones of the Democratic campaign headquarters. Nixon was a fan of wiretapping and had relied on its use before 1972. In 1969, secret bombing missions against Vietcong supply routes in Cambodia were disclosed to the press. These missions were just a small part of many secret activities carried out by the American government during the Vietnam War (1954–75). Nixon believed those leaks to the press to be subversive (in opposition to government) and authorized seventeen wiretaps on newsmen and his own White House aides. He claimed these wiretaps were for the purpose of national security.

Watergate was not the first time Nixon's administration had resorted to criminal acts. In 1971, two White House men were told to dig up information on Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had leaked the controversial Pentagon Papers (a Defense Department study of America's involvement in the Vietnam War) to the newspapers. The names of these men were G. Gordon Liddy (1930–) and E. Howard Hunt, Jr (1918–2007). Liddy and Hunt broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office hoping to find incriminating information; they failed.

Woodward and Bernstein

Liddy and his team were directed to plant wiretaps in the Democratic campaign headquarters, which they did in May 1972. They were unable to intercept the signals of the transmitters during that burglary, so a second one was necessary. The men were apprehended inside the hotel, and the incident outraged and shocked the nation.

Two Washington Post reporters were assigned to cover the Watergate break-in. Bob Woodward (1943–) and Carl Bernstein (1944–) teamed up with six other reporters to gather information on the incident. The first report about it appeared in the June 18 edition of the paper, under the name of the senior reporter, Alfred Lewis. Woodward and Bernstein published their first joint story about Watergate the following day, thus beginning a long series of collaborative investigative reporting. Soon the nation was transfixed by the reporting of Woodstein, as the duo came to be known at the Post.

It was because of the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein that the truth behind the break-in came to light. They reported that White House officials approved the break-in, the fact that would ultimately be the demise of President Nixon. For their work, the two journalists received the prestigious George Polk Memorial Award for outstanding achievement. They also earned the Pulitzer Prize.

Woodward and Bernstein released All the President's Men, the story of Watergate as a book, exactly two years after the incident. It was a bestseller for fifteen weeks and was made into a movie by the same title. Dustin Hoffman (1937–) portrayed Bernstein, and Robert Redford (1936–) played Woodward.

Who Was Deep Throat?

Every journalist needs a source for information. For Woodward and Bernstein, that source wasa man nicknamed Deep Throat. He would meet the writers late at night in a downtown parking garage, whispering to them the information they needed. The whole situation was like something out of a spy movie. If the journalists needed to meet with Deep Throat, Woodward would set a flowerpot on the balcony of his home. If Deep Throat had a piece of valuable information for the reporters, he would draw in ink the face of a clock on page twenty of Woodward's copy of The New York Times.

Deep Throat was not the only source for information on the Watergate affair, but he was the main one. For thirty years, his true identity remained a mystery. Neither Woodward nor Bernstein would provide his name, and the source did not step forward. In 2005, Deep Throat's family came forward to announce his real name. W. Mark Felt (1913–), the number two official for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was the famous source. By the time of the announcement, Felt was ninety-one years old and no longer of sound mind or body after having suffered a serious stroke.


Nixon discussed the arrests over the phone with various White House officials in the days following the incident. A conversation with Nixon and his chief of staff on June 20 was recorded on tape but was later found to have an over eighteen-minute gap, an erasure Nixon blamed on mechanical failure. Another conversation between the men, held on June 23, recorded the president and chief agreeing to order the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to interrupt the FBI investigation of the break-in. This was a clear order for obstruction of justice, and this conversation tape would come to be known as the Smoking Gun. Hunt, Liddy, and the five burglars were indicted by September 1972. Because the public was unaware of the link between the scandal and the president and his highest officials, Nixon was reelected that same year.

Watergate continued to haunt Nixon, and in February 1973, a committee was established to investigate the break-in. That same month, Nixon and his counsel, John W. Dean III (1938–), made arrangements to cover up the involvement of the administration. They did this by paying those convicted to stay silent. One of the burglars indicated that the trial had been fixed through pressure to plead guilty. He implicated Nixon advisers in the crime by saying they gave their approval for the break-in.

Several key White House officials resigned. John Dean was fired by Nixon, who in turn willingly provided documentation proving Nixon's role in the scandal. Nixon maintained his innocence even once it had been revealed that there were recorded phone conversations that could prove the president's guilt. Though adamant about his innocence, the president refused to hand over the tapes. By late July 1974, the House of Representatives voted to impeach (formally remove from office) Nixon. The transcript of the June 23, 1972 conversation was released on August 5, 1974. Four days later Nixon resigned from office.

The five men arrested inside the Watergate Hotel were charged with burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping. All five were sentenced to prison. G. Gordon Liddy was sentenced to six to twenty years in prison but was released in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) pardoned him. Hunt spent thirty-three months in prison. Well over a dozen White House aides and officials as well as other important politicians were either fired or resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. There was enough evidence against Nixon to convict him on charges of conspiracy, among other things. He avoided trial and sentencing when President Gerald Ford (1913–2006; served 1974–77) pardoned him on September 8, 1974.