The Watergate Scandal, 1972-1974
Junior Fellow, Library of Congress
The Watergate scandal unfolded over the course of two complicated years, between the botched break-in at the DNC headquarters in July 1972 and the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974. The following page will provide a narrative and contextualizing information about Watergate. To jump to the chronology of the Senate Watergate hearings, click on "The Senate Watergate Committee" link.
What Caused Watergate?
From the Break-in to the Investigation
The Senate Watergate Committee
Phase One: Watergate
Phase Two: “Dirty Tricks”
Phase Three: Campaign Finance
The Road to Resignation: Nixon’s Last Months
Conclusion: Watergate’s Aftermath
For many Americans, especially those too young to have lived through its events, the term “Watergate” is more likely to recall a footnote in a U.S. history textbook or the ubiquitous political suffix than a serious historical epoch with which to engage. Compared to the great successes and wrenching failures in our past, Watergate can feel embarrassing, tawdry, and more worth forgetting than interrogating. This tendency, it seems to many, is a mistake. Historians, journalists, and commentators have advanced many theses for Watergate’s significance, but few for its irrelevance. Some, like historian James T. Patterson, author of Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1967, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize, have claimed that Watergate brought on a period of cynicism, ending American post-war ambition. Others have cited Watergate as the height of the “Imperial Presidency,” an expansion of executive power that had grown over the course of the twentieth century.1 Watergate, perhaps most importantly, was a “constitutional crisis” that put the relative authority of the three branches of government up for debate.2 Whether Watergate was a low point of political corruption, a high point in the corrective power of American democracy, or the beginning of a certain type of cynicism about politics, it was more than just a political scandal.
What Caused Watergate?
Watergate, it should first be noted, stemmed from a mentality. John Dean explained the atmosphere within the Nixon White House in his June 25 testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee:
To one who was in the White House and became familiar with its inner workings, the Watergate matter was an inevitable outgrowth of a climate of excessive concern over the political impact of demonstrators, excessive concern over leaks, an insatiable appetite for intelligence, all coupled with a do-it-yourself White House staff regardless of the law.
The most notable example of such a leak was the Pentagon Papers, which military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released, the New York Times published, and the Supreme Court allowed to further spread. Shortly thereafter, Nixon ordered the formation of the White House Special Investigations Unit, or the “Plumbers,” led by Nixon aided Egil "Bud" Krogh and David Young, and supported by G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent. This team attempted to plug leaks and discredit Ellsberg through increasingly illegal and fool-hardy plans, including a September 1971 break-in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to find incriminating information. The plumbers unit was only one instantiation of Nixon’s “special passion for vengeance and control,” but it would be the one that got caught.3
With the election of 1972 approaching, the White House and the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) sought to absolutely guarantee Nixon a second term, refusing to leave anything to chance. Early polls showed the race tightening between Nixon and democratic front-runner Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. In late 1971, future campaign chairman John Mitchell (then the Attorney General) and White House Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman selected former White House “plumber” G. Gordon Liddy to run a campaign intelligence program. Meanwhile, using a slush fund controlled by Haldeman, the White House had hired Donald Segretti to undertake a series of “dirty tricks” against Democrats. Partly due to Nixonian dirty tricks, Edmund Muskie’s candidacy collapsed in the primaries, leaving Senator George McGovern of South Dakota as the likely nominee. Although McGovern, who was not popular with moderate voters, was a less formidable opponent, Haldeman ordered Liddy in April 1972 to focus his intelligence-gathering team on the South Dakotan. This “insatiable appetite for intelligence” led CREEP to send five burglars to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, to fix a previously installed bugged telephone.4
To this day, it is not clear whether Nixon knew about the break-in before it occurred - he did not know that his campaign was engaging in dirty tricks, and his loyal chief of staff knew about Liddy's intelligence capabilities - but in many ways it does not matter. As Patterson writes, “In the siege mentality that Nixon incited among his aides, something like Watergate was probably an excess waiting to happen.”5 This mentality was characterized by fierce loyalty to Richard Nixon, a conviction that everyone was out to get them, and a willingness to bend the law rather than allow the election of a politician from the emergent left. This culture is evident from quotes from John Caulfield, Herbert Porter, Jeb Magruder, John Dean, John Mitchell, and John Ehrlichman during their testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee.
From the Break-in to the Investigation
After police apprehended the burglars in the Watergate complex, the story went dormant for a number of months. Throughout the summer and fall of 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously kept on the trail, discovering facts that pointed at a larger scheme of covert activities.6 The McGovern campaign attempted to link the White House to the affair, but few found the accusation compelling.7 Although Nixon maintained that he first learned of the Watergate cover-up from White House Counsel John Dean in March 1973, the tapes of Nixon’s conversations in the Oval Office prove that he was directing the cover-up from the White House just days after the failed break-in.8 Nixon provided suggestions as to how the conspirators would testify and the ways in which money could be raised to keep the burglars quiet. It was Nixon's approval on tape of a recommendation from John Dean and apparently John Mitchell that the CIA get the FBI to call off the investigation, that would be Nixon’s “fatal error.”9 But for a while, the cover-up worked well enough, and in November, Nixon won in a landslide, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.10
In January, federal district judge John Sirica found the five burglars, Hunt, and Liddy guilty. Sirica believed that others were involved and hoping that he might be able to force one of the burglars to talk, handed out very stiff sentences. Similarly, suspicions about the illegality of CREEP’s reelection efforts circulated on Capitol Hill, largely because of the power of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting. On February 7, 1973, the Senate voted unanimously to form the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. The Committee was given one year and a $500,000 budget to “conduct an investigation and study of the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any persons, acting individually or in combination with others, in the presidential election of 1972, or any campaign, canvass, or other activity related to it.”11 The senators selected for the Committee were chosen for their obscurity, their lack of ambition for higher office, or their non-partisan reputations. It included four Democrats, Chairman Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Joseph Montoya (D-N.M.), and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), and three Republicans, Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Edward Gurney (R-Fla.), and Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.). The Committee also had a team of attorneys and assistants, including chief majority counsel Samuel Dash and chief minority counsel Fred Thompson.
The pressure building behind the Watergate dam resulted in a first crack on March 19 when Watergate burglar James McCord wrote to Judge Sirica claiming that the White House had bribed him to keep quiet.12 The letter prompted Dean to lay out in excruciating detail to Nixon the extent of White House involvement. It was at this point that Dean recommended that Nixon attempt to eliminate the “cancer on the presidency” before it spread.13 Members of the White House ran to protect themselves, and as time went on, Nixon himself began to fear being connected with the cover-up.14 On April 30, three members of Nixon’s inner circle, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, Chief Advisor for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned, and John Dean was fired. That night, Nixon gave a speech on television claiming that he would personally investigate the matter.15
The Senate Watergate Committee
Phase One: Watergate
The public hearings began on May 17, 1973, with opening statements from the senators and the testimony of one Robert Odle. Sam Dash, a law professor from Georgetown, was adamant that the Committee build its investigation with “small fish” before moving on to the “star witnesses” of Nixon’s inner circle. As a result, the two witnesses on the first day, Robert Odle and Bruce Kehrli, were low-rankers who explained the chains of command at CREEP and the White House, respectively. The next witnesses, Sergeant Paul Leeper, Officer Carl Shoffler, James McCord, Bernard Barker, and Alfred Baldwin, reported on the events of the break-in at the Watergate and CREEP bugging operations. With James Caulfield, Anthony Ulasewicz, Sally Harmony, and Robert Reisner, the Committee moved into investigating the cover-up including offers of executive clemency, destroyed files, and cash payments. Hugh Sloan, Herbert Porter, and Maurice Stans then described their roles in securing and distributing money for the burglars and their families. The first witness on a higher tier of importance was Jeb Stuart Magruder, the former deputy director of CREEP, who implicated many more people, including his boss, John Mitchell, and admitted to developing a considerable portion of the cover-up.
The first moment of substantial drama came with the testimony of John Dean, which subsequently became the standard against which all other testimony was judged.16 In a calm, steady manner that belied the shocking information he revealed, Dean claimed that the President of the United States was involved in the cover-up as early as September 1972.17 Senator Inouye later commented that he thought that no one believed Dean at first as “it was too fantastic.” As his testimony went on, Dean revealed more and more information about White House practices, including improper use of the IRS and campaign funds, the “enemies list,” and surveillance of politicians. But after five days of questioning, the Committee had done little to crack his opening statement regarding the President.18
The next two witnesses, former Attorney General and director of CREEP John Mitchell and special counsel Richard Moore, both contradicted Dean’s testimony, unequivocally stating that the President had no knowledge of Watergate until late March 1973. The two left the Committee in an apparent state of gridlock. At the end of the July 13 broadcast, Lehrer asked,
Isn’t the Committee walking itself out onto a plank? How are they ever really going to resolve the question (of Nixon’s guilt) when you continue to have witnesses like Mitchell and Moore, compared to Dean and Magruder, and all of these many, many things, where there’s no way to resolve them!
The very next public hearing, in a moment of dramatic irony, that question was answered. On Monday July 16, the Committee brought out a surprise witness, the unknown former aide Alexander Butterfield, who without flair or showmanship reported that Nixon had recorded all his conversations in the Oval Office. The Committee voted in executive session to request access to the tapes.19 The ensuing excitement over the tapes overshadowed the next few witnesses, Herbert Kalmbach, Fred LaRue, Robert Mardian, and Gordon Strachan, who elaborated on the distribution of money, the cover-up, and the dirty tricks of CREEP and the White House. On July 23, as Robert MacNeil reported, “Watergate moved from the realm of political scandal to political crisis” after Nixon refused to hand over the tapes and the Committee voted unanimously to serve two subpoenas, the first time Congress had subpoenaed a sitting President.
With the problem of the tapes continuing to hang over the Committee room, the senators moved on to their originally planned “star witnesses”: John Ehrlichman and H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, two of Nixon’s closest friends and advisors. Dash later commented, “John Ehrlichman came with his jaw strutting out, saying who are you to call me to account, I did everything for my President and my country and I was right. And he put the Committee on the defense.” Haldeman, who had a reputation for harsh leadership (“Every President has his SOB and I’m Richard Nixon’s”), surprisingly came in docile and willing to help. Regardless of their respective personalities, both denied that they or President Nixon had done anything wrong. Haldeman added another wrinkle to the tapes battle when he reported that Nixon had allowed him to listen to some of the tapes at home after he had resigned, thereby undermining the validity of any claims of executive privilege. After Ehrlichman and Haldeman, the Committee retreated from White House insiders to fill in gaps in the existing testimony. They began with current and former intelligence officials, Richard Helms, Robert Cushman, and Vernon Walters of the CIA, and L. Patrick Gray, former acting director of the FBI. Richard Kleindienst and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen rounded out the investigation before the August break.
Phase Two: "Dirty Tricks"
The Committee reopened its doors to the public on September 24, but in a manner that left many, including a few senators, feeling that the Committee had lost its purpose. The intended topic of investigation, improper campaign practices, or so-called “dirty tricks” seemed like small potatoes compared to the ongoing constitutional crisis precipitated by the tapes. Despite these concerns, the Committee plowed on. The first witness upon their return was E. Howard Hunt, who rounded out phase one before the Committee moved on to phase two with Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s speechwriter and ideological advisor. The main witness, Donald Segretti, who along with Charles Colson had planned CREEP’s tricks against the Democrats, described and apologized for many of his actions. Two of his assistants, Martin Douglas Kelly and Robert Benz, corroborated his testimony. The next two men to testify, John Buckley and Michael McMinoway, were undercover operatives in the Muskie and McGovern campaigns, respectively. The following several witnesses, Frederick Taugher, Kenneth Hickman, Richard Stearns, and Frank Mankiewicz, testified about possible malfeasance by the McGovern campaign, including a violent demonstration. November 6 included five more testimonies in public session and 30 affidavits introduced into the record detailing various other campaign pranks.
Phase Three: "Campaign Finance"
The last phase of the hearings covered donations to the Nixon campaign that might have involved either quid pro quo deals or pressure for favorable legislation. Energy during this period was at an all-time low, as both the public and the senators focused their attention elsewhere. Stephen Hess, a frequent expert featured on NPACT’s broadcasts commented that the lack of interest was a shame as the Committee could most affect change with new campaign finance legislation.20 To help illuminate the problem of ethical campaign contributions, William Marumoto, John Priestes, and Benjamin Fernandez reported on possible quid pro quo contributions. Then a representative sample of corporation officials came forward to say that they had been pressured to donate money to the Nixon campaign in exchange for legislative favors. The hearings closed on November 15.
The Road to Resignation: Nixon’s Last Months
While the Senate Committee had been diligently detailing the crimes and misdemeanors of campaign men, the case against Nixon had been rapidly building. On October 20, 1973, Nixon’s orders to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, resulted in the resignation of the Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who refused to carry out the action. Cox was eventually fired as well. This “Saturday Night Massacre,” as it came to be called turned public opinion further against the President.21 It also prompted Congress to authorize the House Judiciary Committee to investigate Nixon’s crimes.
Reacting to the public uproar for firing Cox, Nixon chose to hand over the tapes that Cox had requested to Judge Sirica. This led to yet another scandal. On November 26, personal secretary to the President Rose Mary Woods testified to causing some of a mysterious 18 ½ minute gap [no one admited to causing the rest of it] on the recording of a key Watergate conversation between Nixon and Haldeman. On December 6, Congress confirmed Gerald Ford as Vice President to replace Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in October after charges of corruption.22
Nixon had hoped that by handing over the relatively few tapes that Cox had requested, the desire for tapes would stop. Instead there were three bodies, the Senate Watergate Committee, the new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and the House Judiciary Committee, interested in the tapes and they all wanted more. On November 27, the leaders of the Senate Watergate investigation committee decided to delay further hearings until after the Christmas break. On January 4, 1974, the President again refused to give the Committee tapes or honor their subpoenas. After two more sets of delays, on February 19, the Committee voted unanimously to hold no more hearings, allowing the country to focus on the special prosecutor.23
Jaworski “proved to be as tenacious a prosecutor as Cox,” sentencing seven of the President’s men to prison while continuing to pursue more tapes.24 On April 30, Nixon released edited transcripts of some of them, rife with holes and “expletive deleted” redactions. Judge Sirica, knowing the transcripts to be incomplete, demanded the tapes themselves. When Nixon refused, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case in July. These proceedings roused the 38 members of the Judiciary Committee to action. On May 9, the Committee began hearing evidence. They voted that day to enter executive session, shutting out the press for the initial stages. In two months, the Committee resurfaced to begin impeachment debates on July 24.25 That day, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Nixon must hand over the tapes to Judge Sirica, which he did after a tense few hours.26
Nixon’s late compliance could not stop the momentum that after so many months had built to a grand finale. After two days (July 24 and July 25) of speeches from every member of the Committee, it was clear that the majority would vote for impeachment. On July 26, the Committee began discussing specific articles of impeachment, the first of which (obstruction of justice) they approved the next day. On July 29, the Committee added “abuses of power” to the first charge. The next day, it added contempt of Congress. During this time, the President’s lawyers were listening to the tapes, including the so-called “smoking gun” recording of a June 23, 1972, conversation between Nixon and Haldeman that revealed that the President had ordered the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in. When it became clear he would not survive an impeachment trial, he resigned on August 9, 1974, still unapologetic. For the first time in history, a U.S. president had resigned.27
Conclusion: Watergate’s Aftermath
There are a number of ways of viewing the Watergate story. It could be seen as a story of the success of American democracy. Jim Lehrer later commented,
The way I would sum it up is that it’s good news, bad news situation. It showed the government of the United States at its absolute worst and then it showed it at its absolute best. It corrected a wrongdoing, a series of wrongdoings, that was unprecedented. But the way it corrected was also a series of unprecedented doings.28
Certainly Congress and the Supreme Court, in the method dictated by the Constitution, tried to correct the excesses of an Imperial Presidency and an election system that had gone off the rails, strengthening the Fourth Amendment and privacy protections, reforming campaign financing and giving the Freedom of Information Act real teeth. As Patterson reminds us, “it required a good deal of luck for the ‘system’ to bring him down.”29 Watergate strongly contributed to a wave of American distrust in government and a wave of conspiracy thinking, leaving the lingering question of whether the crimes were simply business as usual. One teacher lamented,
After Watergate, it’s crazy to have trust in politicians. I’m totally cynical, skeptical. Whether it’s a question of power or influence, it’s who you know at all levels. Nixon said he was the sovereign! Can you believe that? I was indignant. Someone should have told him that this is a democracy, not a monarchy.30
Watergate was a crucial inflection point in American political history that remains a standard by which to judge presidential corruption and abuse of power.
Special thanks to Timothy Naftali for his review of this essay.