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

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

31 thoughts on “W is for Watergate”

  1. You’re very early with ABC Wednesday! I must admit that the importance of these events didn’t really register with me until I saw the film. As you say, it wasn’t the crime, it was the cover-up. Or rather that the cover-up was uncovered – we naturally assume that all politicians are covering up something!

  2. I have always believed that if Nixon had early on, simply and publicly admitted that during the heat of a re-election campaign, bad choices and strategies can be made and employed, and had pledged full cooperation to insure that such actions never happened again, impeachment would have been taken off the table and he could have completed his term. I say this as a person who loathed the President (until he was eclipsed by Reagan and especially G. W. Bush).

  3. I remember that time very well. Although I wasn’t quite old enough to vote for McGovern in that election, he would have had my vote. Then again almost anyone besides Nixon would have had my vote even without the Watergate scandal. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

  4. We were on our honeymoon at Shuswap Lake when this all started coming down and I can remember dialing our little transistor radio to try to catch all the news.

  5. I remember that…my uncle was the comptroller for the DNC at the time, his office was one of those bugged… a long time ago.

  6. How complicated, Roger. I never trusted Nixon, but Reagan and the two Bushes were even worse. Let nobody say that the election of an American President is not our business. The whole world is involved!
    Anyway thanks for your participation in ABC Wednesday!
    Wil, ABC Team.

  7. A real political drama, and of course it is always the cover-up that intensifies the crime by adding deceit into the mix and I suppose a certain amount of hubris.

  8. Without getting into the politics of it, I have to say, those kind of cover-ups, (not the swimsuit kind), just get my goat. They’re not cover-ups, they’re LIES and that, my friend is what is at the root of politics — lies to get and hang on to power. I’m a Grinch and a cynic when it comes to politics.

  9. Nixon resigning and finally admitting he did wrong was an unforgettable time in history. As unique as this situation was, however, the drama that unfolded is a common one in the lives of ordinary people. Even smart people can do dumb things and fear owning up to their mistakes.

  10. Nixon – Watergate. It happened when I was two years old but the media I was exposed to seemed to have taught me they were synonymous. And now I’m learning something new about ‘gates.’ Somewhere along a few years back I read Whitegate (when I should have been poring over a graduate thesis).

  11. Watergate continues to fascinate me, in fact it was just the other day where I read that Nixon was in fact even worse that we thought. Plus ça change . . . My ABC Wednesday this week is Wingman.

  12. What I remember most about Watergate was Nixon’s defense of it in his interview with David Frostyears later when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, I think: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.” That summed up his attitude and those of his close allies, many of whom reappeared in subsequent Republican administrations. The problem, then as now, wasn’t the party of the perpetrator but the contempt for democracy and the rule of law. Thanks for mentioning this!

  13. I remember thinking at the time how invulnerable he must have thought he was. Maybe all politicians should have a tape machine running in the background.

  14. Things haven’t changed much.. Will we have a “Holder Gate”?????? Maybe dueling should be broght back LOL

  15. I remember as a teenager thinking it was all so boring. Now I know a watchful and informed public (and honest press) safeguards our freedoms. Very interesting, always enjoy your “lessons:.

  16. I was living in Quebec, just beginning my career as a teacher, and remember this well, although with much less knowledge about some of the key characters you mention. It has been enlightening to think about it from your perspective, and I’ve also enjoyed the comments. Very interesting post!

  17. Wow-two big memory flashes today with your posts, Roger! Watergate, for sure, but how I’ve forgotten about going to our post office and studying that Wanted poster and feeling grateful that the likelihood of any of those characters coming to Molokai were nil!

  18. We failed to punish Nixon for his crimes. Now today Nixon’s successors practice those very same crimes with impunity. And us lazy selfish “Me Generation” Baby Boomers still sit around going, “Hey I got mine, who cares about everybody else?” Nixon The Criminal is still very much with us, and our nation continues to decline.

  19. I seriously thought the Obama administration might go after Cheney for his excesses. I never really thought he’d go after W, though, because they’re both members of “the club.” I remember in one debate (Bush/Gore?) that there was a discussion of the powers of the Presidency, and how difficult it is to put it back into the box, once you’ve taken it out.

  20. i remember being in camp when Nixon resigned. we were out in the woods, y the Deleware River bordering NY State and PA State. someone who was driving back with supplies brought us the New York Times, and maybe 100 of us (14-15 yo) had to share one copy, but I did get to see it that day, and I knew that was important to see it so I could feel what it was like to see it real time. I guess today, i would have read it on my smartphone.

    when time races like a bullet

  21. Funny how the media could care less about obama’s lies and holder’s perjuries. oh well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.