Early in 1972, Nixon was on top of the world. He’d been to China and Russia, and he’d begun to transform the outlines of the Cold War in what looked like a very benign way. This is an era remembered by the name detente, the settling of differences. However, the Watergate break-in of 1972 changed everything. It was unnecessary, and it ruined Nixon.
A group of burglars called the ‘plumbers’ bugged the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex, which is a building complex in Washington, but they were caught doing it. James McCord was their leader, and he and four others were arrested. They denied that they had any kind of link to the White House, but McCord himself was an employee of an organization called CREEP, the Committee to Reelect the President.
Two Washington Post journalists heard about the break-in, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and they pursued the story tenaciously. At first, the Washington Post’s editors were a little bit lukewarm about the story. They also thought, at first, it was probably that the break-in was unconnected with the election. Consequently, at first, the story was buried on the inside pages. Woodward and Bernstein were convinced that there were links to the White House, though, and they wouldn’t let go. In fact, they cultivated sources who enabled them to trace links all the way back to the Oval Office.
One of their most important informants was known with the nickname ‘Deep Throat’. The identity of Deep Throat has remained mysterious right up to the present.
This was the classic case of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, the press, playing a vital role in politics and, in this case, clearly a benign one, in bringing to justice a rogue presidential campaign.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Disclosing of Criminal Activities
Nixon, re-inaugurated in 1972, was in a very awkward position, because he had to appear to be prosecuting Watergate as vigorously as possible, prosecuting the investigation, while simultaneously involved in covering it up.
He appeared on national television on April 30, 1973, hoping to carry off a coup. He was sitting with a bust of Lincoln on one side, the first great Republican president, and a photograph of his family on the other side. In his speech, he said, “There can be no whitewash at the White House.” He said he’d track down the wrongdoers and bring them to justice, and he appointed a Harvard professor of law, Archibald Cox, as a special prosecutor to investigate the charges.
What followed was a series of national hearings by a United States Senate committee through the summer of 1973, and they drew massive audiences. Bit by bit, they started finding, with the help of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, evidence that Nixon and his aides had been involved in burglary, bribery, spying on the sex lives of their political opponents, blackmail, destruction of evidence, perjury, and even pledges of executive pardons to perpetrators who kept quiet.
Gradually, an enormous array of criminal activities by people close to the president were disclosed, and the great remaining ambiguity was this: How much did the president know of these activities that were going on in his name? Did he try to stop them, or did he actually try to encourage and orchestrate them?
Recorded Conversations of Nixon
The greatest breakthrough in the Watergate investigations came when investigators discovered, to their astonishment, that Nixon had tape-recorded all his conversations in the Oval Office. Of course, as soon as the existence of these tapes appeared, the Senate investigating committee said that he should hand them over, so that they could play all the tapes and listen. If every conversation was recorded, they’d soon find out how much Nixon had known, and how much he tried to cover up.
Nixon, however, refused to hand them over, claiming ‘executive privilege’; that is, that there’s a kind of a penumbra, a gray area, that protects a president from having to make full disclosure during his term of office for reasons of national security and other things. Eventually, though, he was forced to turn the tapes over and they incriminated him.
Damage by the Tapes
He had a loyal executive secretary of 20 years-standing named Rosemary Woods, and she had the job of transcribing the tapes, which then would be handed to the investigators. On one of the tapes, though, she erased18 minutes of extremely incriminating information. When asked how she’d done that, she claimed it was an accident with the Dictaphone. However, people actually recreated her bodily movements to show that one couldn’t possibly erase these 18 minutes if they hadn’t intended to be able to do so.
Besides, it wasn’t only the passage that was deleted that proved damaging to the White House, because it showed that Nixon, particularly in conversations with Halderman and Erlichman, two of his closest advisors, had used extremely bad language and aggressive, insulting descriptions of all their potential antagonists. It was this bad language that, as much as anything, horrified the nation; the transcripts were full of racial slurs, threats, and bad language.
Common Questions about Nixon and The Watergate Scandal
In 1972, a group of burglars called the ‘plumbers’ bugged the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex, which is a building complex in Washington, but they were caught doing it. Though they denied any kind of link to the White House, two Washington Post journalists traced links all the way back to the Oval Office, to Nixon. This came to be known as the Watergate scandal.
The greatest breakthrough in the Watergate investigations came when investigators discovered that Nixon had tape-recorded all his conversations in the Oval Office. As soon as the existence of these tapes appeared, the Senate investigating committee asked Nixon to hand them over.
Rosemary Woods was Nixon’s loyal executive secretary of 20 years. She had the job of transcribing Nixon’s recorded tapes, which then had to be handed to the investigators. On one of the tapes, though, she erased18 minutes of extremely incriminating information.