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What was Watergate? Here are 14 facts that explain everything

Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein, Saturday Night Massacre – just some phrases associated with the biggest political scandal in history. Here’s everything you need to know about Watergate 40 years on.

FORTY YEARS AGO last Sunday, five men broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington DC in a botched operation that would spark a chain of events that two years later would see Richard Nixon resign as the 37th president of the United States.

The Watergate scandal is widely considered to be the biggest in political history anywhere in the world but trying to explain it is not easy. There are many names, many dates and many events. But in an attempt to do so we’ve managed to boil it down to these 14 key points:

1. Richard Milhous Nixon

(AP Photo/John Duricka)

To understand Watergate you must to some degree understand the mind of Richard Nixon. He was a former lieutenant commander in the US Navy during World War II before he became a Californian congressman and senator. He was vice president to Dwight D Eisenhower for eight years until 1960 when he himself ran for election against John F Kennedy, the youthful and idealistic Democrat, who he lost to in one of the closest elections in US history.

Nixon was deeply hurt by this, blaming the media for favouring his opponent and he long resented the success of the Kennedy clan, a resentment which lasted all the way to the White House which he was elected to in 1968. But his administration’s early years were hampered by the unpopularity of the Vietnam war which the US had been bogged down in since the late 50s. Tackling the unpopularity of the conflict was just one of many of Nixon’s ‘wars’.

2. White House Plumbers, Nixon’s Enemies List and Rat F***ing

In marking the 40th anniversary of Watergate recently, the two journalists who were pivotal in helping uncover much of the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, wrote that during his five-and-a-half-years in power Nixon waged five overlapping wars – on the anti-war movement, the media, Democrats, the US justice system and history itself.

From the beginning of his presidency Nixon sought to undermine anyone who he considered an enemy. People such as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, whose psychiatrist’s office was broken into by members of the so-called ‘White House Plumbers’. This was a group set up within the White House and tasked with stopping the leak of classified information to the media.

Ex-CIA officer E Howard Hunt and behind him ex-FBI officer G Gordon Liddy were both ‘White House Plumbers’ (AP Photo)

The ‘plumbers’ eventually branched out into other covert and illegal activities, working for the appropriately named CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President [Nixon]) and engaging in activities known as rat-f***ing – dirty tricks – where opposition groups would be infiltrated at campaign events. These tricks undermined Democratic presidential candidates such as Edward Muskie and included everything from forging the infamous Canuck letter – which torpedoed Muskie’s presidential hopes  - to stealing campaign workers’ shoes.

3. The Watergate break-in

As part of these illegal activities, in the early hours of 17 June 1972, five men attempted to break-in to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex, about a mile from the White House. When a security guard discovered tape on a door latch outside the DNC HQ he called the police and the five men were arrested.


YouTube: Newseum

Initial investigations by the FBI were able to establish a connection between one of the burglars and E Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer who it later transpired was one of Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ tasked with fixing leaks and who in turn was connected to Charles Colson, special counsel to the president. Once this link was established, and leaked to the media, the uncovering of the true extent of the scandal began.

4. The cover-up

It is important to note that Nixon never ordered the break-in at the Watergate complex – the approval for that came from Nixon’s former Attorney General and chair of CREEP John Mitchell – but he colluded in its aftermath to distance his administration from it.

“I can say categorically that… no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident,” he told a White House press corp in the immediate aftermath of the break-in.

In reality he was urging his lawyer John W Dean to cover-up the White House’s connection to the Watergate break-in. Six weeks after the break-in, he had told his chief of staff Bob Haldeman of the burglars and their leaders: “They have to be paid. That’s all there is to that.” The cover-up began.

5. Re-election

Having denied his administration’s involvement in the Watergate break-in, Nixon was able to weather the growing storm surrounding the Watergate break-in and win re-election in 1972 with one of the biggest margins in history, beating his Democrat opponent George McGovern in almost every state in the country.


YouTube: electionwalldotorg

6. Woodward and Bernstein

The tale of how these two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, broke some of the most significant stories in the entire scandal is well documented in the book and film All the President’s Men:


YouTube: ShortFormCinema

Their work was crucial to uncovering the links between the initial break-in and a subsequent cover-up that implicated the US Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA and eventually the White House. Their work mainly involved following the money trial which broadly led from the burglars back to CREEP which had a slush fund to pay for the all the illegal activities that were going in.Their stories were continually criticised and denied by the White House and its press secretary Ronald Ziegler who later had to apologise to the men when it transpired that all of what they wrote was true.

Bernstein and Woodword in the Washington Post newsroom in May 1973

7. ‘Deep Throat’

The most famous source in journalistic history, ‘Deep Throat’ was the name given to a senior source that Woodward relied heavily on in steering him in the right direction when it came to investigating Watergate.

The source was, in journalistic parlance, on deep background which meant he could not even be quoted anonymously. This led one of Woodward’s editors to label him after the famous porn film at the time Deep Throat. Deep Throat was later unmasked as the FBI’s number two Mark Felt.

Woodward explains their relationship in this clip:


YouTube: Newseum

8. All the President’s Men

One of the most striking things about Watergate is how male dominated the whole saga and the whole Nixon senior circle was hence the name of best-selling book All the President’s Men. By early 1973, cracks began to appear in the cover-up of Watergate when FBI director Patrick Gray testified at hearings intended to confirm him as permanent director of the FBI that he had been asked to keep the White House abreast of the Watergate investigation on a daily basis. He had been asked by John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, and said that Dean had “probably lied” to investigators.

Soon afterwards one of the Watergate burglars, James McCord, wrote to Judge John Sirica claiming that he had perjured himself in testimony by lying about the nature of the burglary saying it had been a CIA operation when in fact it involved other government officials. Soon after Dean began co-operating with Watergate prosecutors and Gray resigned as head of the FBI after it emerged he had destroyed files connected to the scandal.

At the end of April 1973 there are further departures as White House officials John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, and attorney general Richard Kleindienst all resigned because of their involvement. Dean was fired.

9. The White House Tapes

In May of ’73, the Senate Watergate Committee began nationally televised hearings into the growing scandal. The hearings involve Senator Sam Irvine and special prosecutor Archibald Cox.  They prove the connection between the initial burglary and CREEP and subsequently the White House. Dean’s continuing co-operation leads to the revelation that Nixon and he discussed Watergate at least 35 times.

John Dean gave a 245-page prepared statement to the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973, lasting a total of seven hours. (AP Photo)

But the most explosive relation came when the former presidential appointments secretary Alexander Butterfield revealed that all conversations and phone calls in Nixon’s office had been taped since 1971. The tapes were almost immediately disconnected on Nixon’s order and he refused to comply with the committee’s subpoena for him to release the tapes invoking presidential privilege.

10. Saturday Night Massacre

The battle over the release of the tapes continued as the special prosecutor, Cox, refused to drop the subpoena. When the Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, Nixon called for their resignations. He was able to fire Cox anyway and both the AG and deputy AG resigned in protest.

Later Nixon famously went in front of the media and the world at a press conference from Disney World in Florida to declare that he is not a crook:


YouTube: maxpowers518

11. ‘The Smoking Gun’

In March of 1974 the grand jury indicted seven Nixon officials – known as the Watergate Seven – for their involvement in the cover-up and many later served jail time. But the battle over the tapes continued and went all the way to the US Supreme Court where, with the exception of the recused Justice William Rehnquist (whom Nixon had appointed), there was a unanimous ruling that they should be released.

Nixon complied with the order in July 1974 and released the subpoenaed tapes which revealed several crucial conversations with his lawyer John Dean in which Dean described the continuing cover-up operations as a “cancer on the presidency”.

It then emerged that there had been an 18-minute section of the tapes erased. Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods said this had been done accidentally when she pushed the wrong foot pedal but photos posed for the media appeared to undermine the liklihood of this and analysis later determined the tape had been erased in several sections.

Rose Mary Woods, at her White House desk, demonstrates the “Rose Mary Stretch” which could have resulted in the erasure of part of the Watergate tapes (AP Photo/File)

The in August of ’74, a previously unknown audio tape was released which recorded an Oval Office conversation a few days after the break-in which documented the formulation of a plan by Nixon and Bob Haldeman to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was at issue in the Watergate break-in.s

This is the exact audio from the tape that is referred to as the ‘smoking gun’ and in the words of Nixon’s own lawyers “proved that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers – for more than two years”:


YouTube: multisuperhands

12. Resignation

The game was up. Facing certain impeachment after being told by Republican senators that they would vote in favour of such a motion, Nixon decided to resign, saying that the scandal over Watergate would prevent him from carrying out his duties:

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.


YouTube: MCamericanpresident

After saying farewell to staff in the White House East Room on the morning his resignation came into effect – 9 August 1974 – Nixon and his wife Pat departed on Marine One. Before entering the helicopter he gave a famous v-sign salute which had become one of his best known trademarks while in office :

13. Pardon

Succeeded by Gerald Ford – who himself had succeeded Nixon’s other vice president Spiro Agnew in ’73  -  the new incumbent issued a presidential pardon to Nixon ensuring that he would not face any criminal prosecution. Impeachment proceedings against Nixon had already been dropped following his resignation. Ford explained that he felt the Nixon family’s situation was “an American tragedy in which we all have played a part”:


YouTube: footagefile13

14. Aftermath: Convictions, Frost/Nixon, popular culture

In total the scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty including some of Nixon’s most senior aides – chief of staff Bob Haldeman and special counsel Charles Coulsen along with two former attorneys general, and a number of other lawyers whose convictions severly tarnished the public image of the legal profession particularly in Washington.

Nixon continued to proclaim his innocence right up until his death in 1994 saying only that he had been wrong in not acting more “decisively” in dealing with the illegalities of the Watergate scandal. Famously he did a high-profile television interview with the British broadcaster David Frost in 1977.

The interview included Nixon’s answer to a question about the legality of his actions in which he said: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” He also apologised:


YouTube: willfungku11

Watergate has led to the publication of hundreds of books, dozens of films and many, many references in popular culture including the use of the suffix -gate for any scandal.

After 40 years it continues to resonate in modern day politics and acts as a warning to anyone in public life of the dangers of being too driven by power to not notice the moral, ethical and legal implications of what you are doing.

Read: After 40 years, the ‘what ifs’ of Watergate scandal are still tantalising

Read: Nixon reveals romantic side in love letters to his ‘Irish gypsy’

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