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UNNEEDED RISK

Watergate

1973

Mired in a political scandal that threatened to destroy his presidency, Richard Nixon famously declared, “I am not a crook,” in a televised Q and A session with 400 Associated Press managing editors in November 1973; while he never recanted such words, the enormity of evidence suggesting he was a crook left a permanent blemish on Nixon’s presidency. As a result of the Watergate scandal, Nixon became not “the president who ended Vietnam” or “the president who oversaw large-scale racial integration” or even “the president who helped take America to the moon.” Nixon instead became “the president who resigned to avoid being justifiably impeached.”

The scandal initially looked like a mere robbery. On July 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Office Complex—where the Democratic National Headquarters was located—noticed that tape was covering several doors to keep them unlocked. He removed the tape and continued his shift, but when he noticed that the doors had been retaped, he phoned the police. Five men were arrested and later indicted, along with two others, for conspiracy and burglary. The burglars had on their persons and in their hotel rooms thousands of dollars of cash that could be traced back to the 1972 Committee to Reelect the President, a fund-raising organization for the Nixon administration that was given the pejorative acronym CREEP by his opponents. This connection between the committee and the burglary earned the burglary considerable media attention. The scandal became the subject of an investigative journalism project spearheaded by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who relied largely on anonymous sources. Their correspondence with a source referred to as “Deep Throat” (revealed in 2005 to be former FBI Associate Director William Mark Felt) suggested that the burglary and its coverup had ties to the FBI, the Justice Department, and even the White House. This fueled a broader investigation that did not end with the burglars’ convictions. It was not long before Nixon asked for the resignation of some of his closest aides implicated in the scandal, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. He also fired White House Counsel John Dean, who would later become a witness against Nixon.

Hearings held by the Senate garnered substantial media coverage; the majority of Americans saw some segment of the hearings between May 17 and August 7. It was learned during the hearings that all conversations held inside the Oval Office were recorded. Archibald Cox, a special counsel in the Justice Department charged with examining the Watergate scandal, subpoenaed the tapes; Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and issues of national security, and ordered Cox to withdraw the subpoena. Nixon offered Cox a rigged compromise: John C. Stennis, a famously hard-of-hearing Senator from Mississippi, would review the tapes and summarize them for the special prosecutors. When Cox refused, Nixon forced the resignation of Attorney General Elliott Richardson. The attorney general had been appointed just two months before, and he refused to comply with Nixon’s demand to fire Cox. Richardson was replaced with Robert Bork. Bork reluctantly dismissed Cox and replaced him with Leon Jaworski, who picked up where Cox left off. It was this incident, dubbed by the press as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” that led Nixon to assert he was not a crook.

Jaworski did not give up. His efforts caused Nixon to attempt a compromise, releasing transcripts of the tapes with information pertinent to national security redacted. Controversy stemmed from an almost twenty-minute gap in one of the tapes. In July 1974, the Supreme Court mandated that full access to the tapes had to be granted. That same month, the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend three articles of impeachment against the president: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. In August, a tape was released that was deemed the smoking gun of the affair, an irrefutable piece of evidence that destroyed Nixon politically. It detailed a 1972 conversation between Nixon and Haldeman in which Haldeman described a plan to cover up the burglary by having the CIA obstruct an FBI investigation into the affair; Nixon approved the plan. That conversation, along with charges that Nixon paid blackmail money to hush conspirators, sounded the death knell for Nixon’s presidency. Nixon’s own lawyers abandoned him, and many who had been reluctant to impeach him declared that they had changed their minds.

Though Nixon never admitted to being involved in Watergate or its coverup, he did declare that he regretted not handling the scandal correctly. After being informed that there were enough votes in Congress to impeach him, he resigned on August 8, 1974. His successor was Vice President Gerald Ford, who a month later fully pardoned Nixon to protect him from criminal prosecution. Such an action drew accusations that a deal had been made between Ford and Nixon in which the latter would be pardoned for handing over the mantle of the presidency, though no evidence of such a deal has ever surfaced. Many attribute Ford’s defeat in the election of 1976 to the Watergate incident.

The political landscape in the decades following Watergate had been irrevocably altered by the political consequences of Nixon’s actions. Initially, the Democrats gained substantial ground in congressional elections as a result of the subterfuge of a Republican organization devoted to getting Republicans elected. The practice of recording conversations in the White House ended. Many new laws came into existence with the ostensible purpose of encouraging ethics in government.

Our language now shows just how deeply Nixon’s Watergate mistake affected the nation. Any public scandal is defined with the “-gate” suffix. These are across-the-board issues ranging from sports to pop culture: Spygate (a football controversy involving the New England Patriots spying on the New York Jets); Monica-gate (Monica Lewinsky’s ill-fated relationship with President Bill Clinton); and, more recently, Kanye-Gate (singer Kanye West publicly humiliating another singer during a televised awards ceremony).

Nixon oversaw many positive political developments during his tenure. He had significant foreign policy successes, such as his historic visit to China in 1972, which opened up diplomatic relations with them. He also initiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, and he signed a cease-fire with North Korea, effectively ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. He made significant advances on the domestic front, implementing many of the most progressive social reforms of the 1960s. During his presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and Nixon signed the Clean Air Act and supported extensive conservation measures and environmental reforms. He was also the first president to take up the issue of welfare reform. He signed important legislation prohibiting gender discrimination and implemented the first significant Affirmative Action program. Perhaps most notable, he was pivotal in desegregating Southern public schools.

When the Watergate was broken into, Richard Nixon was up almost twenty points in the polls. He had a lead that was beyond insurmountable and won easily. Watergate was just not necessary on any level. This one mistake meant that his other achievements have been completely overshadowed by scandal. Perhaps the most negative consequence of Watergate was the rise in public cynicism toward politicians. So many investigations went on after Watergate—often initiated primarily to destroy political opponents—that the public became jaded. In the decades since Watergate, public apathy for important political issues has risen. Politicians and their political agendas are often looked at with deep skepticism. This mistake changed how we view our leaders. The fallout has reverberated across the decades, ushering in a new era of public cynicism, apathy, and partisanship that continues to this day.

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