Break-in report heralded one of most damning US scandals
AMERICA:After the Watergate affair Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to resign from office
AROUND 1am on Saturday, June 17th, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate complex in Washington DC noticed that several door latches had been taped over to prevent them locking shut. He removed the tape. When he found the latches taped again an hour later, the guard called the police.
At 2.30am, five Watergate burglars were arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters office, wearing business suits and rubber gloves, with $2,300 in cash, most of it in sequential $100 bills, stuffed in their pockets.
The banknotes, traced to the Republican Committee for the re-election of the president, provided the first clue. The second breakthrough was the discovery in August that campaign funds had been deposited in the bank account of one of the burglars.
Two years later, facing the near certainty of impeachment after dozens of close aides quit or were sacked by him, after his own party and the Supreme Court disavowed him, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to resign from office.
The average American household was exposed to 30 hours of Watergate coverage; 85 per cent of Americans with televisions watched at least one Senate Watergate committee hearing during the summer of 1973.
Despite Gerald Ford’s assertion when he succeeded Nixon that Watergate proved “our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule”, America never quite recovered the naive faith it once had in the country’s highest office. The president had lied. Baldly, repeatedly, incontrovertibly.
Because Nixon and most of the 48 people convicted in connection with the scandal were lawyers, that profession took a beating. Attorney general John Mitchell, the highest law enforcement official in the land, was convicted of perjury and imprisoned.
Watergate gave us the term “expletive deleted”, the “gate” suffix to denote a scandal, and the quote for which Nixon is best remembered: “I am not a crook.” The Washington Post’s star Pulitzer Prize-winning team, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, would be played by Hollywood heart-throbs Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film version of their book, All the Presidents Men.” Enrolment in US journalism schools spiked in 1974.
Nixon hated the media with a passion. In an Oval Office tape from February 1971, he complained that “it would be so much easier . . . to run this (Vietnam) war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war.”
Four elements conspired to make Watergate a perfect storm : an aggressive investigative press at the top of its form; Woodward’s cultivation of “Deep Throat” – 30 years later revealed to have been the deputy director of the FBI – who allegedly watched the flowerpot on Woodward’s balcony for signs that Woodward wanted another 2am meeting in an underground car park; the willingness of John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, to tell the truth; and hundreds of hours of tapes secretly recorded by the paranoid president, which the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over, precipitating his resignation.
On several tapes, Nixon colluded in the payment of “hush money” to prevent the Watergate burglars talking. “They have to be paid,” he told his chief of staff HR Haldeman on August 1, 1972. “How much money do you need?”
Nixon asked Dean the following March, when Dean told him the burglars were blackmailing. Nixon suggested that a million dollars in cash could be raised “to take care of the jackasses who are in jail”. The most damning tape of all, the “smoking gun”, was recorded six days after the burglary, and proved that Nixon was in on the cover-up from the beginning. Haldeman lamented that “the FBI [was] not under control... they’ve been able to trace the money.” When Haldeman suggested using the CIA to rein in the FBI on bogus grounds of national security, Nixon replied, “You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” In their first joint-bylined piece in the Washington Post in 36 years, to mark the 40th anniversary, Woodward and Bernstein noted that Watergate was merely the tip of the iceberg, that Nixon had for at least two years been ordering wire taps, mail intercepts, break-ins and tax audits against his opponents.
In his resignation speech, Nixon cited the “interest of the Nation” three times, his loss of support in Congress twice. Though he lived for 20 years after giving a defiant victory salute as he climbed into the helicopter on the White House lawn, “tricky Dick” never expressed the slightest remorse.
The once secret tapes revealed Nixon’s foul mouth, self-obsession, grudges and hunger for revenge. They were, Woodward and Bernstein write, his most lasting legacy. Alas, “The dog that never seems to bark is any discussion of what is good and necessary for the well-being of the nation.”