Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Watergate Refresher for 2017

Whether or not you like President Trump or not, even if you’re ambivalent, I thought a few teachers might be interested in this story of Watergate which I wrote for my students twenty years ago.

Current references to the “Saturday Night Massacre” and the need for a special prosecutor might have students today asking questions.

Feel free to copy and use it if you like (or email me and Ill gladly send you a copy of the original Word document:

An Affair Called Watergate

A few days before President Richard M. Nixon left office in disgrace, an advisor tried to cheer him. History would mark him as one of our great presidents, the aide predicted. 

A gloomy Nixon could only reply, “That depends, Henry, on who writes the history.”


If you ask people what they remember about President Nixon’s time in office today, most of what he did right is forgotten. The Watergate Affair is what they are likely to mention. Nixon is the only president ever impeached and driven from office before his term ended.[1]

His downfall began with a botched burglary at “The Watergate” building in Washington, D. C. It was there, on June 17, 1972, that a night watchman with a flashlight noticed something unusual. The locks on several doors, including those in the offices of the National Democratic Party were taped open. Police were called and five burglars rounded up. 

Normally, burglary isn’t national news. This was no ordinary break-in. The suspects carried $1,754 in cash, along with cameras and film. They had sophisticated equipment for tapping phones and recording conversations. One burglar, James McCord, had worked for the C.I.A. Even stranger, police found this notation in his address book: “Howard E. Hunt, W. House.”

From the start police were suspicious. Why would burglars break into the headquarters of the Democrat Party? Could McCord’s note mean the White House? Could the suspects be spying on Democrats because 1972 was an election year? Who had hired them and turned them loose? 

The next day White House staff members spoke to reporters. No one who worked for the President, they said, knew anything about the break-in. President Nixon shrugged it off as a “third-rate burglary.” Then he assured reporters there was no reason for concern. Everyone, from the President down, seemed surprised. Almost all of them were lying.


            Today we know what was involved. Nothing added up in the summer of 1972. Nixon had been elected four years earlier, partly on a promise to end the Vietnam War. (Lyndon Johnson, president before him, had been attacked over handling of the fighting in Vietnam. Johnson took criticism so hard he decided not to run for reelection in 1968.) Even after Nixon took office, however, the war dragged on and on. The list of dead grew with each week. 

Americans who believed the government had made a mistake by leading us to war turned on the new man in the White House. In 1970 there were anti-war protests on college campuses across the country. Four student protestors were killed at Kent State University (Ohio) when National Guard troops opened fire. In 1971 thousands of peace marchers flooded the streets of Washington, D. C. They threatened to “shut the government down” unless bloodshed ended. Americans who weren’t sure what to think had real doubts about the war.

Criticism of Mr. Nixon mounted. With the election of 1972 approaching, he seemed unable to end the fighting.

We couldn’t win the war; but the President refused to accept defeat, to be part of what he said would be a “cowardly retreat.” He insisted the United States must have “peace with honor.” Nixon chose to increase pressure on the enemy. American warplanes rained bombs on North Vietnamese targets. Fighting spilled over into neighboring Cambodia. The President had promised to end the war. Instead, it seemed to grow. Meanwhile, Daniel Ellsberg, who once worked for the U.S. government, added fuel to the debate. Secretly, Ellsberg removed thousands of pages of documents from government files. These papers he handed over to reporters. Soon known as “The Pentagon Papers,” the documents seemed to show that U.S. leaders before Nixon took office had failed to tell the truth about the war and had overstated our chances of winning.

American troops had been fighting in Vietnam for nearly a decade. Voters were weary. Democrats who planned to run for president in 1972 increased attacks on Nixon, questioning his handling of the war.

Hadn’t he had four years to find a solution? Wasn’t it clear he had failed? Why not elect someone new and let them end the war?

Senator George McGovern, for one, claimed he could stop the fighting “twenty-four hours” after he was sworn in as president. Opinion polls that summer indicated that Nixon might lose the election in November.


So, what went wrong? In his heart, President Nixon believed anti-war protests were hurting U. S. chances for victory in Vietnam. The enemy would not give up, he argued, if they thought the United States might quit first. Nixon was angered by the criticism—and considered Ellsberg nothing less than a traitor. More importantly, the President believed if America backed down in Vietnam we would lose respect round the globe. To the President and his advisors the danger seemed clear. For the good of the country, to insure our nation’s strength, Nixon had to be reelected. The protestors and Democratic rivals had to be silenced—had to be put out of action—even if that meant drastic action. 

Government agents received secret instructions to begin tapping phones and opening mail of anti-war individuals and organizations.

Newspaper writers who criticized Nixon had their phones bugged, too, all these actions taken without search warrants.

John Erlichman and Charles Colson, top White House aides, ordered several illegal break-ins, what became known as “black bag jobs.” The office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was raided in an effort to gather information that would make him appear “sick” or crazy. These actions were clearly illegal. The men who worked for Nixon, however, felt justified. They were acting for the “good” of the country. Ellsberg and those who leaked material to reporters were a threat—to the safety of America—or, so said Nixon’s men. They even coined their own nickname: “The Plumbers.” In an effort to stop “leaks” of information to the press, they repeatedly broke the law.

            As Election Day approached, questionable activities multiplied. In the spring of 1972 it looked like Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat from Maine, would be Nixon’s strongest challenger. A Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), was set up by some of the President’s allies and swung into action. Donald Segretti and several young political workers were hired to harass and damage Muskie’s campaign any way they could.

            On one occasion, Segretti put in a fake order for 200 pizzas to be delivered to a Muskie campaign dinner. That might sound funny; but more serious tricks quickly followed. Fake campaign literature was passed out. Supposedly, it laid out Muskie’s positions on various issues. Materials were written to make him sound bad, like someone you wouldn’t want for your president. Important records turned up missing from his office. Fake callers cancelled meetings and changed plane reservations. A fake letter to a newspaper ruined Senator Muskie’s campaign for good.    

Nixon encouraged top aides to gather information on Senator Ted Kennedy, another possible challenger. A private detective was hired to look into details of a car accident involving Kennedy in 1969, during which a young lady drowned. Colson turned up a picture of Kennedy, who was married, leaving a night club with a hot blonde. It was printed in several papers. Nixon congratulated Colson for his work. Colson moved on to more questionable activities. Once he hired several men to pose as homosexuals and stand outside Senator McGovern’s meetings. Pretending to support McGovern for president, Colson knew their presence would cause many Americans to vote against McGovern instead.

            Laws on the collection and use of money in elections were broken in various ways. Several companies secretly donated as much as $250,000 to CREEP.[2] Nixon overstepped the rules, himself, asking the Internal Revenue Service to check the tax returns of individuals who questioned his handling of the war. If people on an “enemies list” the White House now kept could be caught in mistakes it might silence their criticism.


            Before June 17, 1972 these activities were mostly secret. Now, with the arrest of five Watergate burglars, the White House had problems. The original burglars and G. Gordon Liddy who helped with the break-in and was arrested shortly thereafter, knew plenty. Some of Nixon’s closest advisors had knowledge of the break-in plan. The trail led right to (and possibly through) the door to the Oval Office. Police investigations soon showed a direct connection between the burglars and Howard Hunt. Hunt had an office in the White House. Liddy and McCord were on the CREEP payroll. CREEP was headed by John Mitchell, Nixon’s personal friend.

            Fearing the investigation might spread like cancer the White House decided their best bet was to “cover up.” The day after the burglary, Mitchell lied, denying any connection to the men arrested. The day after that one of Mitchell’s workers, a lawyer named Jeb Magruder, asked what to do with notes that might prove CREEP knew what was going on. Mitchell’s reply: “Maybe you ought to have a little fire at your house tonight.”

            John Erlichman, second in line to leadership of the White House staff, panicked when the F.B.I. joined the case. Erlichman had been deeply involved with Hunt and Liddy. He knew about the Ellsberg burglary. Now he ordered John Dean, President Nixon’s personal lawyer, to empty the safe in Hunt’s White House office. Dean did what he was told but not before putting on a pair of surgical gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.  What about the evidence in the safe? What should he do with it? Erlichman told Dean to “deep-six” the contents. He should dump everything in the Potomac River. Dean, like several top men at CREEP, got busy with a paper-shredder. Box after box of evidence turned to confetti.

            Despite these cover-up efforts, reporters kept sniffing. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who wrote for the Washington Post, did more than anyone to break the story. Early on, a secretary at CREEP warned them privately, “The whole thing is being very well covered up and nobody will ever know what happened.” Then the two reporters uncovered a key lead. CREEP officers had used a secret fund of $350,000 to pay for illegal activities. Another source, deep inside the F.B.I., began providing them with a variety of leads.[3] Woodward and Bernstein picked up Donald Segretti’s trail. A friend who worked for the phone company checked records for them—ironically, in illegal fashion. Segretti had used a credit card to call Hunt and Dwight Chapin at the White House.

            Chapin was Nixon’s private secretary.

            As early as June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—Nixon made a fatal decision.

            That day he told H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, to pressure the F.B.I. to go slow on the investigation. From that point forward the “Watergate Affair” was something more than a “third-rate burglary.” At first, the question was: “Who planned the break-in?” There was a possibility Nixon was innocent. After the meeting with Haldeman, an illegal cover-up was underway. And the President of the United States of America was involved.


            By late summer, the trials of Liddy and the five burglars had begun. Several witnesses lied in hopes of keeping the investigation from spreading, adding perjury to a growing list of crimes. The White House secretly arranged to pay the burglars to remain quite, to “hush them up.” John Dean hinted to defendants that after the election, when it was politically safe to do so, Nixon would “take care” of them. A quick pardon would follow.

            Judge John Sirica, who heard the case against the Watergate burglars, was suspicious from the start. The six men insisted they planned the job themselves. So, when it came time to sentence the defendants, Sirica put on the squeeze. They were expecting three-to-five years, fairly typical in burglary cases where no one was harmed. Sirica wanted to force them to talk. So he slapped them with the maximum penalty: thirty-five years in prison. 

James McCord broke immediately. In a letter to the judge, written almost as soon as he returned to his jail cell, he admitted money and pressure had been applied to keep him silent. Sirica read the letter to reporters and a stunned courtroom audience the following day. 

            Nixon and his aides kept a lid on the story enough so that he was able to win reelection. But the shadow of Watergate lengthened. Congress set up a special committee to investigate. Reporters from various news organizations kept digging. Doubts about Nixon grew with each passing week. By the spring of 1973 the story was making daily headlines. To show he was “anxious” to get to the bottom of the mess, the President appointed Archibald Cox as “special prosecutor” to investigate matters. 

            Startling developments only complicated Nixon’s dilemma. During questioning in Congress, a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield let a critical detail slip. The President, he admitted, “bugged” his own office. “I was hoping you fellows wouldn’t ask me about that,” Butterfield told the Congressional panel. For years President Nixon had recorded every conversation he held in his White House office, including dozens which might tell who knew what, when, and how much about the Watergate affair. Nixon wrote in his diary soon after: “At the present time we are really caught without knowing how to handle it.” Normal White House business was at a standstill. The presidency seemed “paralyzed.”     


            Opinions vary even today. We do know Nixon chose, at the very least, to protect friends rather than tell the truth. At one meeting he told John Mitchell how aides should testify in Congress and in court. Let them “stonewall it” and say nothing. They could “plead the Fifth Amendment,[4] cover up or anything else if it’ll save it—save it for them,” he explained.

It was harder and harder to keep a lid on the truth. By March 21, 1973 Nixon’s lawyer, John Dean, was warning his boss there was “a cancer on the Presidency” which would grow. He (Dean), Colson, Haldeman, Erlichman and others were likely to face criminal charges. The worst problem was Howard Hunt, who was blackmailing the White House. Dean explained that it would take $1,000,000 to keep Hunt and the original burglars quiet. Even that might not be enough. The President was willing to pay. But it made no difference. Dean began spilling the truth to investigators himself. So did other top officials. 

One by one, Nixon’s closest aides were caught in a spider web of lies. Top CREEP officials were found guilty of planning the burglary and lying in court. Chapin, Colson, Haldeman, Erlichman and Dean were charged with a list of crimes. Mr. Nixon continued to insist he had not been involved.

During one famous TV address he looked into the camera and assured a worried nation: “I am not a crook.”


            The beginning of the end came in September 1973. Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, asked to listen to nine tape recordings from the Oval Office, covering key conversations related to Watergate. Nixon refused to give him the tapes, offering written transcripts instead. Fresh problems arose. One recording, a meeting on June 20, 1972, was found to have a mysterious 18 ½ minute “gap” or erasure. No one could explain how this happened. Nixon’s secretary said she might have erased a few minutes by mistake. It seemed like more than a “coincidence” that this tape covered the first meeting between H. R. Haldeman and Nixon, days after the break-in.

            Cox insisted transcripts were not enough. He demanded the recordings. Nixon responded by firing him, the very man he had chosen to get to the “truth.” When the President asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to carry out his order, Richardson quit. His top assistant quit, too. Finally, a third official was found who would carry out the order. The firing and resignations of these three top law enforcement officials became known as “The Saturday Night Massacre” and stirred a storm of protest. 

A week later the White House roused the nation’s anger again. Nixon’s staff reported that one of the nine tapes Cox asked for did not exist. A third ran out in the middle of a conversation. In the last ten days of October a million telegrams and letters poured into Congress, demanding action. On November 12, 1973, Time magazine ran its first editorial in fifty years. The headline: “The President Should Resign.”

Nixon tried to save himself. He appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. But the President had no time to relax. Jaworski asked for more tapes, sixty-four in all. Nixon released thousands of pages of transcripts but no tapes. The printed record was bad enough. It showed our nation’s leaders had been involved in what one magazine called “sleazy, cheap and vulgar” activities. Nixon dug in his heels and refused to give up any more transcripts or any tapes at all. According to the powers granted by the U.S. Constitution, Nixon said, Congress had no right to pry into his private records.

Faced with evidence of a long list of crimes, the House of Representatives opened impeachment hearings in the spring of 1974. On July 24 the United States Supreme Court sealed Nixon’s doom. By an 8-0 vote, with one justice in the hospital, the court ruled that he was required to turn over the tapes investigators wanted. When they were released Congress had all the evidence it needed. The tape of June 23, 1972 was labeled “the smoking pistol.” Like a smoking gun in a criminal’s hand, it showed Nixon had been involved in an illegal cover-up from the start.

The House quickly voted to impeach. As required by law, the Senate prepared to hold the trial and perhaps remove the President from office under the process set forth in the U.S. Constitution. With no hope left, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.

Soon after, a beaten ex-president headed home to California in disgrace.

Sadly, on one of his last mornings in office, Nixon questioned two staff members. “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?” he asked. Neither man had the heart to answer.

Your work:

1. What did the burglars expect to gain by breaking into the Watergate building?

2. Why did Nixon feel that the United States could not afford to lose the Vietnam War?

3. In what ways did Segretti and other Nixon supporters disrupt Democratic election plans in 1972?

4. What illegal activities were used against news reporters, anti-war groups and Daniel Ellsberg?

5. What was Nixon’s “fatal decision” on June 23, 1972 and how did it change the Watergate affair?

6. How did Nixon suggest aides should testify in court?

7. By March 1973 why was the White House having trouble keeping the story from spreading?

8. After the President refused to give Congress any more transcripts or tapes, how was the legal battle settled?

9. Identify or explain the importance of:

A.   Woodward and Bernstein
C.   Daniel Ellsberg
D.    “deep-six”
E.    Judge Sirica
F.    Alexander Butterfield
G.   The 18 ½ minute gap
H.   The Saturday Night Massacre
I.      “the smoking pistol”

[1] President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1867 and barely survived the Senate vote. President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1999 but never came close to losing his position.
[2] This is illegal—because it might rightly be called an attempt to buy “favors” from the government.
[3] The identity of this man, whom Woodward and Bernstein called “Deep Throat,” remained secret till 2005. His name was Mark Felt, in those days, a top man with the F.B.I.
[4] Under the 5th Amendment no defendant can be forced to give information that might lead to his or her own conviction for a crime.

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