The Watergate Affair was a political scandal leading to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. It began when members of the campaign to reelect Richard Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel during the 1972 presidential election campaign. Nixon had no prior knowledge of the burglary plans, nor gave consent to the escapade, yet his loyalty to subordinates led to Nixon consenting to cover up activities and transferring money from the Presidential election campaign fund to pay for the legal defense of those who were involved. Nixon resigned when it became clear he had lost support within his own party and Congress, which had Democratic majorities in both branches, was likely to impeach him for obstruction of justice.
The Watergate Break-In
On June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars included James W. McCord, a former CIA employee, and several Cuban expatriates with ties to the CIA. The subsequent investigation of the break-in revealed that the intruders were acting on behalf of the Committee to Reelect the President (also known as CRP or CREEP). They, along with accomplices E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were convicted of burglary and wiretapping in Jan. 1973.
From Burglary to Political Scandal
Evidence that emerged at the burglary trial suggested that the break-in had the approval of higher-level government officials who were attempting to cover up their involvement. This possibility was aggressively pursued by investigative reporters in the print media, with Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward playing particularly critical roles. Woodward and Bernstein, as well as others, discovered evidence that the break-in was only part of a wider effort of political "dirty tricks" designed to discredit Democratic candidates. They also uncovered the existence of a secret slush fund used to finance these activities.
In April 1973, with a Senate investigation underway, several top Nixon aides, including H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, resigned over the scandal, and White House counsel John Dean III was fired. Dean subsequently testified during televised hearings beginning in May, exposing Nixon's participation in the Watergate cover-up and massive illegalities in Republican fundraising in 1972.
The hearings also revealed that since 1971 Nixon had recorded conversations and telephone calls in his office. The president, however, refused to turn the tapes over to the Senate Watergate committee, citing executive privilege. In Oct. 1973 Nixon ordered Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had subpoenaed the tapes, but Richardson chose to resign instead. Richardson's assistant, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Cox and was himself fired. Finally, it was the solicitor general, Robert Bork, who fired Cox. The incident, which became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," led to widespread calls for Nixon's impeachment.
The White House released edited transcripts of the tapes in April 1974, and eventually the tapes themselves, after the Supreme Court rejected Nixon's claim to executive privilege. But the damage was done; President Nixon's behavior—his cover-up of the burglary and refusal to turn over evidence—and the erosion of the public's confidence in his administration, led the House Judiciary Committee to issue three articles of impeachment on July 30, 1974. The document also indicted Nixon for illegal wiretapping, misuse of the CIA, perjury, bribery, obstruction of justice, and other abuses of executive power.
"In all of this," the articles of impeachment summarize, "Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice, and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." Impeachment appeared inevitable, and Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
Nixon was succeeded in office the same day by Vice President Gerald R. Ford, who a month later issued a full pardon to Nixon for any crimes he might have committed in office, thus eliminating the possibility of future prosecution. A number of other administration officials served time in prison for their offenses, including former attorney general John Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean, and G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who helped plan the Watergate break-in.
Nixon was caught by a recording system whose installation he had himself ordered. It transpired during the course of the investigation that all conversations in the President's office had been secretly recorded for years for historic purposes. During the investigation the White House was forced to release transcripts of Watergate-related tapes. These transcripts showed that at the very least Nixon was participating in near-daily, ongoing discussions of how to manage the spreading Watergate scandal. Many dubious actions, such as the payment of "hush money" to the defendants, were openly discussed and, seemingly, considered.
Tension was heightened when a tape with a key conversation, recorded a week after the burglary, turned out to have an eighteen-minute gap. To date the gap has not been explained, nor has anyone managed to recover the erased material. White House chief Alexander Haig provoked derision by a suggestion that the erasure had been caused by "some sinister force." Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods told the press that she could have erased the tape by accident while talking on the phone; when the press asked her to demonstrate, it became clear that this explanation was literally a long stretch. Later analysis by acoustics firm Bolt, Baranek and Newman concluded that the gap was the result of at least five separate erasures; since the tape recorder had a two-button interlock to prevent accidental erasure, the conclusion was that it must have been a deliberate action.
David Frost interview
In 1977, Nixon had an interview with British journalist David Frost. The event is recounted in Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon
Notes and references
- Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob. All The President's Men
- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson also made secret recordings: JFK Library and Museum to Host Presidential Tapes Conference, JFK Library, February, 2003
- Rosemary Woods demonstrating how she may have erased tape recordings.
- National Archives Has Given Up on Filling the Nixon Tape Gap, New York Times, 2003