The early 1970s were dominated by Richard Nixon’s doomed and increasingly desperate attempts to wriggle out of his own sinister skullduggery: Watergate.
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If the assassination of President John F. Kennedy defined the loss of innocence in the Sixties, the Watergate scandal fueled the distrust and skepticism felt by many Americans as the country emerged with its confidence bruised as never before from the ashes of Vietnam.
The early 1970s were dominated by Richard Nixon’s doomed and increasingly desperate attempts to wriggle out of his own sinister skullduggery.
In the end, he had no alternative to resign – and was only saved from the humiliation of prosecution and quite possibly prison by his successor Gerald Ford’s controversial decision to pardon him.
A photo of the Watergate Complex taken from above.
Business as Usual
A graduate – some would say a master – of the hostile means-justifies-the-ends politics of the 1960s, Nixon probably thought little about the illicit methods to plot his re-election that ultimately led to his downfall.
In Tricky Dicky’s White House, it was business as usual.
Indeed, history may have panned out very differently had security guard Frank Wills not become suspicious on June 17, 1972 when he saw that the locks on the doors of the Democratic National Party’s Watergate headquarters had been taped over.
He called the police, who turned up just in time to catch a group of burglars red-handed inside.
It was only when the phone number for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP) turned up among the prowlers’ belongings that the first alarm was raised.
In the space of the next two years, the siren would be blaring all the way up to the Oval Office.
Richard Milhous Nixon had battled hard and long to get to the White House, from his beginnings as a congressional rookie in 1947 to his narrow defeat at the hands of JFK in 1960 all the way to his comeback triumph in November 1968.
But by the time of his emphatic presidential re-election victory four years later the thwarted burglary had already sewn the seeds of his ignominious departure.
In August 1972, Nixon had given a speech in which he swore none of his staff was involved in the Watergate break-in.
The fact that so many people believed him, subsequently sweeping the Republican stalwart to one of the biggest landslide election victories in U.S. political history, only intensified the anger and sense of betrayal when his lies were eventually exposed.
It turned out later that the aborted break-in was not the first at the DNC offices.
The same men had first broken into the HQ in May 1972 to steal top secret documents and bug the office phones.
When the listening devices didn’t work properly, they decided to return and hide a new microphone.
If Nixon was unaware of the original burglaries as he maintained even after being caught out, then he was certainly at the heart of the ensuing cover up.
A few days after the arrests, he arranged for the burglars to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” to cover their trail.
Perhaps even more seriously, he then hatched a Machiavellian plot to get the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s probe into the debacle.
Soon the hush money was being traced to bank accounts held by the burglars, who, it emerged, had direct links to Nixon’s re-election committee.
It wasn’t long before the finger of suspicion was pointing towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously uncovered information through an anonymous “Deep Throat” informant that knowledge of the break-in and subsequent cover-up led to the higher echelons of the Justice Department, the CIA, the FBI…and the White House.
The informant was deputy director of the FBI Mark Felt but his identity wasn’t revealed until 33 years later in 2005.
In a crucial breakthrough, Woodward and Bernstein interviewed Judy Hoback Miller, the bookkeeper for Nixon, who revealed to them information about the mishandling of funds and records being destroyed.
The five Watergate burglars - Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis, were charged with conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws and were convicted on January 30, 1973.
By this time, the conspiracy was quickly unraveling.
One of the burglars had written to Judge John Sirica insisting the break-in was part of a much bigger plot and the focus of the media scrutiny turned slowly but surely back to Nixon.
On April 30, Nixon tried to distance himself from the scandal by demanding the resignation of his two closest aides, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and trusted advisor John Ehrlichman, who were both later indicted, convicted and jailed for 18 months for their parts in the cover-up.
On the Record
Attorney General John Mitchell would also later be convicted of perjury and sentenced to 19 months in prison Nixon fired White House Counsel John Dean, who not only went on to testify in front of the Senate Watergate Committee but also said he believed his conversations with the president were secretly taped – the bombshell that forced Nixon into resignation before he was impeached.
The Senate committee immediately demanded to hear the tapes and although Nixon initially resisted, he was forced in the end to hand over a number of damning recordings.
Not a Crook
On November 17, 1973, Nixon insisted to the country: “I’m not a crook.” But the following March, a grand jury in Washington indicted seven former presidential aides and secretly named Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
The Smoking Gun
The net was tightening and there was no way out.
The tapes were to reveal several damning conversations between Nixon and Dean that made it very clear that the president was aware of the cover-up and was taking a decisive role in how it was being played out.
On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives voted to approve impeachment hearings against Nixon on the grounds of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.
The release of a “smoking gun” tape on which the president could be heard approving a plan to block investigations into the burglary, which had happened just a few days earlier, by having the CIA falsely telling the FBI that national security was a factor was the final nail in his coffin.
"All right, fine, I understand it all,” Nixon could be heard saying on the tape. Returning to the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI, he instructed Haldeman:
"You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That's the way they play it and that's the way we are going to play it.”
The recording proved that the president was lying when he denied any involvement in the Watergate plotting. It showed he’d been in on it right from the start.
Realizing that he would face certain impeachment, Nixon had no choice but to throw in the towel.
Duty to Preserve
He resigned in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on August 8, 1974.
“In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the nation.
Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.
In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort.
As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….
I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so.
But the interest of the nation must always come before any personal considerations.
Leaving the Office
From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the nation would require.
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.
But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.
Enter President Ford
To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."
Nixon left the White House with his family the next day, flown by helicopter into a future where his name would be synonymous with dishonesty and corruption.
Nixon leaving the White House shortly before his resignation became effective, August 9, 1974. Public Domain
He would be pardoned by Ford the following year, a decision many believe cost the new president the subsequent 1976 election.
Nixon went to his death in 1994 proclaiming his innocence, but he was never able to cast off the dark shadow of Watergate.