The scandal that proved the political adage that it's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover-up.
On June 17, 1972, police responded to a burglar alarm at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C, and arrested five men in the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
The burglars were in the middle of bugging the office, whose occupants were helping co-ordinate Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. They were wearing rubber gloves, had cameras and 40 rolls of unexposed film, and were carrying something like $2,300 in cash. They also had little hand-held tear-gas guns.
When they appeared in court the next morning, several of them identified themselves as "anti-Communists."
As they investigated the burglary, the Washington police also charged G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt Jr. Liddy was a member of a group called the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP), and Hunt was a former White House aide in Richard Nixon's administration.
And so began the long, slow, painful unravelling of the Nixon presidency.
The digging begins
It turned out that the Watergate burglars were on their second expedition into the DNC headquarters. CREEP had been around for some time, headed by Nixon's former attorney-general, John Mitchell. Before the election campaign got underway, the crew was called the "plumbers," because they were responsible for tracking down leaks in the Nixon White House. It later came to light that the plumbers had used illegal tactics to do so: tapping reporters' phones, raiding private files, inventing evidence, and so on.
CREEP was an independent, informal group, outside the established Republican Party campaign machine, but still amassed a staggering war chest of about $60 million. CREEP was used for "dirty tricks" -- digging up information on Nixon's opponents in the 1972 primaries, and then on McGovern and his campaign team. (For instance, McGovern's first vice-presidential nominee, Thomas Eagleton, left the ticket after admitting he'd once been treated for mental illness, a fact that came to light through leaks and plants in the press. McGovern replaced him with Kennedy-by-marriage Sargent Shriver.)
Ironically, Nixon didn't need the dirty-tricks team's help; McGovern botched the campaign all by himself, and Nixon won 49 states and a historic majority of the votes in the November election.
But the police kept investigating, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein kept digging, asking questions of Republican campaign staffers and former White House aides. They were helped by "Deep Throat," an anonymous source who had access to information that kept the reporters on track. Woodward's commitment was to keep Deep Throat's identity secret until after the source died, but Deep Throat outed himself in 2005. He was W. Mark Felt, then a senior FBI official Woodward had met by chance years before and established a relationship with. His motives appear to have been a mix of genuine moral outrage at what the investigators working for him were discovering, and personal rancour over having been passed over for the directorship of the FBI by Nixon, who appointed a crony (L. Patrick Gray) instead.
Eventually, the Post had published enough information that several U.S. senators decided it was time for public hearings to find out exactly what the White House had had to do with the burglary. The Senate formed a Select Committee that schedule two months of hearings in spring, 1973, under the direction of Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.).
The hearings begin
Once the (televised) hearings were scheduled, the conspiritors' façade started to crumble. Some of the burglars, whom CREEP had hung out to dry, wrote to Judge John Sirica, the judge who had convicted and sentenced them to prison. McCord told Sirica that he and the other burglars had lied at their trial by insisting they'd been acting alone -- they said they'd done so at the urging of former attorney-general Mitchell and John Dean, the White House Counsel. Sirica passed the information on to Ervin's committee, where it became public knowledge.
The Senate committee was busily issuing subpoenas to current and former White House staffers, FBI and CIA agents, cabinet officers, and Republican Party workers. There was corruption in the system, it became clear, but no one knew how extensive it was. That changed once the burglars' letter to Sirica was released.
On April 30, Nixon made a television address, professing his shock at the malfeasance of his aides and campaign workers, and announcing the resignations of John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman, and the departure of the sitting attorney-general, Richard Kleindienst, in favor of Elliot Richardson, who wasn't a personal associate of the men who'd resigned.
Shortly afterward, Richardson appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair outside the Senate's process.
The constitutional crisis
While testifying before Ervin's committee, former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon was in the habit of secretly tape-recording conversations he had in the Oval Office, ostensibly for the benefit of the historical record.
Ervin's committee and Cox, the special prosecutor, subpoenaed vast numbers of the tapes. They figured the tapes would settle, once and for all, the key question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
Nixon refused to hand the tapes over. He claimed they were covered by "executive privilege," arguing that he was making a principled objection to the subpoenas: if Congress could demand documents and recordings from the White House, the executive branch would lose its independence.
(Unrelated to Watergate, but not helping Nixon's image any, Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned under a cloud in mid-summer. The former governor of Maryland pleaded no contest to charges he'd taken bribes associated with state contracts. Nixon nominated House of Representatives Minority Leader Gerald Ford to succeed him.)
By this time, the scandal had reached deep into the White House. Fifteen administration officials had resigned, four people had been indicted, and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination invoked dozens of times. Two separate grand juries were sitting, the House of Representatives was holding its own hearings, and many of the exploits of the plumbers and CREEP had been revealed.
On Oct. 20, 1973, during the "Saturday Night Massacre," Nixon ordered Attorney-General Richardson to fire Cox for continuing to press for the tapes (which the White House still hadn't turned over). Richardson refused, so Nixon fired him ... and then fired the deputy attorney-general for following suit. Ultimately, Nixon got the U.S. solicitor-general, Robert Bork, to do the deed.
Three days later, with outraged legislators and the public demanding to know what Nixon was hiding, the White House finally turned over some of the Oval Office tapes, many of them with parts erased -- one tape was missing more than 18 minutes in a solid block. What was deleted, and who did the deleting, has never been finally settled. The congressional committees asked for more tapes, but Nixon again refused.
The matter of the tapes eventually went to the Supreme Court. In an 8-0 verdict in United States v. Nixon, the court ruled that executive privilege didn't apply to the tapes, and that the White House had to turn them over forthwith.
Three days after the Supreme Court ruling, with the additional tapes still in Nixon's custody, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the full House adopt three articles of impeachment against the president, accusing him of obstructing justice, violating citizens' rights, and unlawfully disobeying subpoenas.
The first article was the most damning because it was the least technical. It accused the president of:
- making false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States;
- withholding relevant and material evidence or information from lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States;
- approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings;
- interfering or endeavouring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees;
- approving, condoning, and acquiescing in, the surreptitious payment of substantial sums of money for the purpose of obtaining the silence or influencing the testimony of witnesses, potential witnesses or individuals who participated in such unlawful entry and other illegal activities;
- endeavouring to misuse the Central Intelligence Agency, an agency of the United States;
- disseminating information received from officers of the Department of Justice of the United States to subjects of investigations conducted by lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States, for the purpose of aiding and assisting such subjects in their attempts to avoid criminal liability;
- making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch of the United States and personnel of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, and that there was no involvement of such personnel in such misconduct: or
- endeavouring to cause prospective defendants, and individuals duly tried and convicted, to expect favoured treatment and consideration in return for their silence or false testimony, or rewarding individuals for their silence or false testimony.
The mortal blow to Nixon's presidency came on Aug. 5. He released three tapes that answered the what-and-when question: he knew about the break-in six days after it happened, knew who was responsible, and ordered a cover-up. These tapes, collectively, were the "smoking gun." The Judiciary Committee members who had voted against impeachment announced that they would change their votes.
A small group of Republican senators and congressmen went to visit the president and told him he could not survive an impeachment process in Congress. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, flying away from the White House in the presidential helicopter one last time.
The new president, Gerald Ford, issued Nixon a pre-emptive pardon, which protected him from the criminal investigation that would surely have followed. Ford argued it was necessary for the country to heal, declaring that "Our long national nightmare is over." He probably would have lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter anyway, but the pardon didn't help.
Politicians seem not to have learned the lesson that failed cover-ups are far more damaging than confessions -- see Iran-Contra affair and Monica Lewinsky. But no one since Nixon, as far as we know, has abused the powers of the presidency so completely, and not for his personal gain.