The Watergate Scandal

Created By

Catherine Sardo Weidner, Lake Forest College

  • Conservative Resurgence and Social Change, 1964-2000: Domestic Politics

Introduction & Context

The Watergate scandal exposed the widespread political corruption of the Nixon White House during his campaign for re-election as president. As the race tightened, Attorney General John Mitchell and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman authorized G. Gordon Liddy, a White House operative, to gather intelligence on Nixon’s opponent, Senator George McGovern. Liddy hired the men who burglarized the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., in May and June of 1972 in order to tap the phone of the DNC chairman, Lawrence O’Brien. On June 17th of that year, five men, including James McCord, the security coordinator for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP or CREEP), were caught and arrested for breaking into the DNC headquarters. With an eye to the November 1972 election, the White House denied any involvement and attacked the press, particularly The Washington Post, for continuing to report on the story and arranged to pay hush money to the burglars. Nixon also ordered Haldeman to use the CIA to halt an FBI investigation into the break-in.

The cover-up started to unravel after the conviction of the Watergate burglars in early 1973, when McCord, to avoid taking the blame for higher-ups, charged that witnesses had committed perjury at the trial. In May, the Senate began a televised investigation into the affair, which soon revealed that Nixon secretly taped Oval Office conversations. Even before the Senate investigation revealed that these recordings existed, John Dean, White House Counsel, testified that Nixon had many conversations about both the break-in and the cover-up. Only the tapes would corroborate the extent of the president’s knowledge and access to this crucial evidence quickly became the focus of the Senate and Department of Justice Watergate investigations. Nixon refused to release the tapes, however, claiming that executive privilege protected his conversations. This triggered both impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives in May 1974 and an appeal to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, United States v. Nixon was decided, forcing Nixon to surrender the tapes. The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment the following week. Facing impeachment, the collapse of Republican support, and clear evidence of his complicity, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.

Read More +

Teaching Tips Download PDF

This source set consists of video clips which document the Watergate scandal as it unfolded between 1972 and 1974, as well as one documentary and a retrospective appraisal on the 50th anniversary of the break-in. The sources cover issues germane to the scandal: freedom of the press, the oversight role of Congress and the separation of powers, the concept of executive privilege and the legal battles over access to the White House tapes, and first-person perspectives on the relationship between Watergate and democracy.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • The conservative resurgence of 1968
  • The conspiracy theories of Richard Nixon
  • The Committee to Re-Elect the President and Nixon administration officials
  • The timeline of the Watergate scandal
  • The media coverage of the Watergate hearings
  • The constitutional concept of separation of powers

Essential Question

To what extent did the Watergate scandal represent the subversion of democracy or the resilience of democracy?

General Discussion Questions

  • What role did broadcast journalism play in Watergate?
  • How did Congress assert its powers during the Watergate scandal?
  • What did Watergate reveal about the role of the judiciary in the United States?
  • What impact did the Watergate scandal have upon public trust in government?
  • In the absence of incriminating evidence, would Nixon have resigned?
  • What is the most important legacy of the Watergate scandal?

Classroom Activities

1) The Separation of Powers and Congressional Oversight: Now and Then

Ask students to watch the following sources:

The Senate hearings ran for 51 days over the summer of 1973 and were televised gavel to gavel. Who testified, and what impact do you believe the cooperation of witnesses had on public perceptions? To what degree do you feel the excesses of the Nixon White House lend credence to the notion of an imperial presidency?

How did the members of the House Judiciary Committee approach the impeachment hearings in 1974? Why did so many reference the Constitution and what did they say? Whose remarks resonated with you most and why?

Ask students to read this NPR article on the January 6 Committee and to compare it to the Watergate hearings in terms of its process and the political make-up of the committees. Identify the factors that differentiated the House of Representatives investigation into the January 6th, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol from the Watergate investigations.

2) The Lessons of Watergate

Ask students to watch the following sources:

Rep. Barbara Jordan (D, Texas) and Grace Crawley agree that Watergate exposed the lack of integrity and morality in government, but they disagree when it comes to preventing future scandals. What solutions does Jordan endorse? What does Crawley see as the answer? Garrett Graff, writing on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, also weighs in. What lesson does he draw from the Watergate scandal? What lessons do you think should be drawn?

Ask students to put themselves in Crawley’s place: As a citizen in 1974, what would they say in a letter to the editor of Time magazine? What points would they make about political integrity, accountability, and upholding the Constitution?

3) The Judiciary v. the Executive

Ask students to watch the following sources:

What role did the Special Prosecutor and the Senate Select Committee play in getting key evidence released? Why did Nixon refuse to surrender the tapes and what specific arguments did he make? Do you find these persuasive?

Imagine you are a lawyer arguing on behalf of the United States in the 1974 United States v. Nixon case: What points would you make in order to convince the Supreme Court that President Nixon should surrender all the White House tapes?

4) Interpreting Watershed Moments

Ask students to watch:

Why do you think these were turning points in the Watergate scandal? What made them so dramatic and in what way did they advance the public’s understanding of the inner workings of the Nixon administration?

Political cartoonists like Herblock (Herbert Block), Pat Oliphant, and Draper Hill captured many of the watershed moments of the Watergate scandal in their work. Some of the most memorable were Herblock’s Watergate cartoons published in The Washington Post (1972-74).

Using Herblock’s cartoons as a model, ask students to create a political cartoon based on the key events documented by the video sources or others that they identify.

If time permits, create a classroom exhibit based on the cartoons and ask students to lead tours in which they interpret the meaning of the cartoons and explain their historical significance.


Weidner, Catherine Sardo. "The Watergate Scandal." WGBH and the Library of Congress.