W is for Watergate

The key lesson of Watergate seems to have been “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”


Five burglars involved with the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, were arrested; a couple more, involved in the operation, were also detained. The term used by President Richard Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, to describe the event was “a third rate burglary attempt.” The seven were tried and convicted, President Richard Nixon was reelected in a landslide, and that was that. Except for the fact that two years later, the President was forced to resign in order to avoid almost certain impeachment.

I could not do justice to the story in such limited space – I recommend this Washington Post retrospective – but I do want to convey how important this story was to me personally, and how it played out provided an optimism about “the process” that I have seldom had since.

The burglars had a relationship with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which many delighted in calling CREEP. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information suggesting knowledge of the break-in and attempts to cover it up, with help of secret informant Deep Throat to fill in the blanks, led deep into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House. Various men close to the President were forced to resign.

The US Senate had a select committee operate from May 17 to August 7, 1973, and shown in rotation by the three major networks. Riveting story and I watched it as often as possible, as did most of the country, though some soap opera fans were furious; this was better than the made-up stuff.

It got REALLY interesting when White House assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed that there were listening devices in the Oval Office of the President. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes, as did the Senate, but Nixon refused to release them, citing executive privilege and ordered Cox to drop his subpoena, which Cox refused. On October 20, 1973, Nixon demanded the resignations of Attorney General Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus for refusing to fire the special prosecutor, finally getting the reluctant Solicitor General Robert Bork to do so; this was referred to as the “Saturday night massacre.” It was pretty much downhill from there, with each new revelation pointing closer to RMN himself.

I remember SO many of the characters in this drama. Chair of the Senate select committee Sam Ervin of North Carolina had a folksy demeanor, yet stayed on task. During the House committee hearings on impeachment, Republican House member William Cohen of Maine’s looked pained as he recognized his President’s failings. Charles Colson was convicted of obstruction of justice; he became involved in prison ministry, and he died only a couple of months ago (Arthur had a take on him).

It reminded me how checks and balances used to work, with even Republicans communicating to a GOP chief executive that an abuse of power had taken place. And it was also a time when a vigorous press was a true fourth estate, holding government accountable, but in turn, holding itself responsible for what is published in return. I do miss those days. Oh, here’s the trailer to the film All The President’s Men, which addresses the latter aspect.

The key lesson of Watergate seems to have been “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup,” a message politicians seem to have missed over and over. And over and over. One terrible outcome is the attachment of the suffix -gate to almost every subsequent scandal, no matter how trivial. Here’s an undoubtedly incomplete list.
Legendary reporter Bob Woodward gets defensive about mild accusations that he sexed up his Watergate stories

Woodward and Bernstein: 40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought

Will Robert Redford’s new documentary explain whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in?

ABC Wednesday – Round 10

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