I remember being in our usual pub quiz a few months back and one of the questions concerned Watergate. We were sitting with some friends, actually some much younger friends and one of them asked me, ‘Watergate? What’s that?’
I have to admit to being surprised as the Watergate scandal is something that every one knows about, don’t they? It’s the scandal that gave the world the ‘gate’ suffix which has been added to every scandal that has happened since. Hence Irangate, Camillagate and so on. What was Watergate about then you might ask? OK, it’s a subject that’s well worth reading about if you like American politics, which I do. I have a number of books about Watergate and President Nixon and I’ll go through them in a moment. Firstly though back to that question, what exactly was Watergate all about?
On June 17th 1972, five burglars were caught in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington. Some of the five had links to the CIA or the FBI but all of them were linked to an organisation known as CREEP, the Committee to REElect the President. The President was Richard Milhous Nixon who had been defeated by John F Kennedy in 1960 but had made an extraordinary comeback to the political limelight. Just think back now to the presidential elections of recent years. Remember those defeated candidates, Dukakis, Mondale, Dole? Familiar names who had their fifteen minutes of fame and then vanished into the history books. Did any of them ever make a comeback? Well, the only one that I can think of is Richard Nixon.
Defeated in the presidential election of 1960 he then ran for governor of California only to lose that election too. He appeared before the media to concede defeat but in an emotional attack on the assembled press he finally called it a day for his political ambitions. ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore’ he said angrily. Then he was gone, off to start a new life in a legal practice. Eight years later he would once again be the Republican candidate for the presidency in the turbulent year of 1968 and this time he would win.
Nixon knew about the hard-line politics of the 1960s and 70s. He knew that others used bugging and other illegal means to get political intelligence and he wasn’t above using those tactics himself. During the Vietnam war Government employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked top-secret information that later became known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. Nixon was furious that the FBI and other security services did not seem to be up to the task of stopping those leaks. He created a security intelligence group within the White House to address the problem and they became known as the ‘plumbers’ led by former FBI agent G Gordon Liddy.
After their initial operations to investigate the leaks of secret information, they escalated their activity to include burglary and covert bugging operations. Wiretaps and listening devices were secreted in the Watergate building, presumably to harvest intelligence on the rival Democratic campaign. However, the Plumbers were required to break in again to service existing devices and set up new ones. On the 17th June 1972 they were caught by the Police.
Whether Nixon ordered that actual break in is unclear, but he did block attempts by the FBI to investigate the matter and he also warned the CIA director that a vigorous investigation of the break‐in might ‘blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing, which we think would be very unfortunate—both for C.I.A. and for the country, at this time, and for American foreign policy.’ What, I wonder, was he referring to, what knowledge did Nixon have about the Bay of Pigs that would threaten Richard Helms, the head of the CIA?
John Dean, counsel to the President was concerned about the increasing demands of the Watergate burglars for more and more money. He mentioned to Nixon that these could ultimately cost -and here Dean plucked a figure from thin air- a million dollars. Dean was shocked by the response.
President Nixon: We could get that.
President Nixon: If you—on the money, if you need the money, I mean, you could get the money fairly easily.
President Nixon: What I meant is, you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.
By this time, news of Watergate and wider implications of misuse of election funds had permeated into the media. The Washington Post had led the way with its reporting by two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They had produced numerous scoops because of information given to them by a high level source in the FBI, a source known only as ‘Deep Throat’ but who was later revealed to have been Mark Felt, a deputy director at the FBI.
In early 1973 the senate began its investigation with televised hearings and one of the first revelations was that Nixon routinely taped conversations in the White House. Archibald Cox who had been appointed Special Prosecutor subpoened the tapes. Nixon refused to hand them over and ordered the Attorney General to fire Cox. He resigned in protest as did the Deputy Attorney General. The Solicitor General was called upon to fire Cox which he did. The incident became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
The revelations on Nixon’s tapes damaged his reputation severely. In an effort to stave off the release of the actual tapes, he first released transcripts. The public reaction, initially favourable, soon faded after people came face to face with the numerous ‘expletive deleted’ comments which were substituted for their President’s foul language. The Providence Journal wrote, ‘while the transcripts may not have revealed an indictable offense, they showed Nixon contemptuous of the United States, its institutions, and its people.’
Some time later Nixon was forced to release the first batch of tapes. On 27th July 1974 the House Judiciary committee voted to recommend the first article of impeachment against the president. On August 8th, Nixon broadcast his resignation speech. The next day he resigned from office.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote the excellent book All the President’s Men, later made into a major motion picture. It is well worth reading, an excellent book of investigative journalism.
John Dean wrote his version of events in the book Blind Ambition. Dean was given a jail sentence of one to four years for obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty and after cooperating with prosecutors his sentence was reduced to time served, a mere four months.
G. Gordon Liddy was a former FBI agent and the chief operative of the White House ‘Plumbers’ unit. Liddy was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for his involvement in Watergate but this was later reduced by President Carter and Liddy was paroled after four and a half years. Liddy later became a popular radio broadcaster in the USA.
One last book about Nixon himself rather than Watergate.
President Richard Nixon retired in disgrace to his home in San Clemente, California. He never admitted any wrongdoing during his time as President, in fact he stated ‘if the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!’ Nixon in Winter is by Nixon’s research assistant Monica Crowley who worked for the former President until his death in 1994.