What was Watergate?

Article by Medhya

Most people have heard of Deflategate, Obamagate, and the eponymous Watergate, but few of us know what really took place in Washington D.C in the 1970s.

What Happened:

In short, “Watergate” refers to the political scandal in which Republican President Nixon’s inner circle was revealed to be connected to an attempt to bug the Democratic National Convention (DNC) headquarters (located in the Watergate hotel/office complex). Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. This scandal prompted a national conversation about the fallibility of our nation’s leaders as federal corruption was brought to the forefront of American politics for the first time.

Deeper Dive

On June 17th, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the DNC headquarters, the base of the Democratic Party. Two young Washington Post reporters, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were the first to get hold of the then minor story. Although the President initially denied any connection to the incident, Bernstein and Woodward quickly realized that there was more to the story than it seemed through an inside source known as ‘Deep Throat’ (later revealed to be the Deputy Director of the FBI). The young reporters made startling discoveries, reporting on October 10th that the FBI believed that Nixon aides were responsible for the break-in. However, the public was not convinced that there was a story and Nixon was re-elected in a landslide victory in November.

Shortly before Nixon’s inauguration, the trial of the Watergate burglars began. After months of pressure from the judge and facing life in prison, the burglars finally agreed to speak out about their connections to Nixon on March 1973. Among other shocking revelations, the burglars revealed that they had been paid off to keep silent about their connections to Nixon’s inner circle and the leaders of Nixon’s re-election campaign (the Committee to Re-Elect the President or CREEP). These revelations prompted the formation of the Senate Watergate Committee to investigate the president in February. By April, senior White House aides, the Attorney General, FBI/CIA agents, and White House council would resign over connections to Watergate. 

An investigation was clearly in order. Uniquely, the Senate Watergate hearings (beginning May 17, 1973) were concurrent with the Justice Department’s investigation, and both were televised. Wary of obstruction of justice, on May 18, 1973, the Justice Department designated Archibald Cox a “special prosecutor” who could only be fired by the Attorney General, to investigate Nixon.

On July 13, 1973, former aide Alexander Butterfield testified to the Senate that Nixon had secretly recorded all conversations and calls in his office. At first Nixon entirely defied subpoenas for the tapes (citing executive privilege), and after the special prosecutor refused Nixon’s counteroffer of written summaries of the tapes, Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor. On October 20, 1973, which was later known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Nixon fired the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General after they refused to obey him. When the acting Attorney General Robert Bork complied with Nixon’s order, immense public backlash pressured Nixon to release seven of the nine tapes requested by the Special Prosecuting Counsel, and that too with a portion omitted.

The accumulation of allegations against the president prompted the House to begin impeachment proceedings on May 9th, 1974, and approve three articles of impeachment by the end of July-- obstruction of justice, misuse of power, and contempt of congress. On July 24th, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to release the remaining tapes; their August 5th release was the “smoking gun” that revealed that Nixon had been trying to cover-up the Watergate break-in as early as June 23rd, 1973. On August 9th, 1974, Nixon resigned in order to avoid impeachment.

Why It Matters:

Unfortunately, corruption is once again at the forefront of American thought and discussion. Striking similarities can be highlighted between President Nixon and Trump’s impeachment battles and as Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.” It is important that we learn from the past to prevent future corruption and to inform our decisions as voters in upcoming elections.

For the last installment of this series, an in-depth analysis of how President Trump’s impeachment echoes Watergate, visit this link.

Sources: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/complete-watergate-timeline-took-longer-realize




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