What was Watergate?
Hello and welcome to the second post in our series on the Watergate crisis. It was 40 years ago that this shocking series of events took place, and it’s amazing how little most people know about it. Watergate may have been the greatest challenge to our democracy in our entire history, because it was an attempt by a president and his advisors to undermine, and even overthrow, checks and balances of power between the three branches of government, judicial review, and equal protection under the law. No president that we know of had ever before, or has ever since, committed himself and his closest advisors to actual crimes: robbery, intimidation, blackmail, attempted murder. These were all things that President Nixon either ordered his men to do, or mapped out a plan for. It took all the accumulated power of our democratic system to stop this metamorphosis into dictatorship, and one crucial event was so terrible it was called the Saturday Night Massacre, and yet—few Americans today know what that was, or any of the main events, let alone the details and motives behind those events, that made up Watergate. Unfortunately, all that lives on of that crises are: a paradoxical, cruelly unwarranted, deeply heart-breaking lack of faith in our government on the part of Americans; and the suffix “-gate”, which we apply now to all sorts of idiotic pseudo “scandals”. We call Watergate a crisis, not a scandal, because it threatened the very basis of democratic government in this country, which goes beyond the minor thrill of shock and titillated interest that defines a scandal.
We will bring Watergate back in this series, because it was a forceful attack on our democratic system that was even more forcefully beaten back by Americans who understood that system and were willing to fight for it. Let’s go through the events in the crisis as they happened.
It all started in January 1972, when Gordon Liddy, leader of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, came up with a plan to cripple the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign that year by spying on their headquarters, stealing documents, threatening members of the Democratic National Committee, and more. Winning the 1972 was beyond crucial to President Nixon. He was determined to win re-election, mainly so that he could continue the Vietnam War (which he believed the U.S. could win under his leadership) and continue his efforts to reach out to Communist China. Nixon also felt it was crucially important that a moderate Republican hold office for two terms to break the Democratic stranglehold on the presidency: since 1933, there had only been two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and himself. So the Committee for the Re-Election of the President was not some minor group of volunteers working in a basement office. Nixon was personally involved in their work.
One thing that has lingered in the public memory is that name: the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. It was known as the CRP in the Nixon administration, but once the Watergate crisis began to break, and public opinion turned against Nixon, it was popularly referred to as CREEP.
Liddy presented his criminal plan to the CRP’s chairman, Jeb Magruder, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean (the president’s personal lawyer). That Liddy felt no qualms about suggesting illegal activities to two federal lawyers—one the nation’s top lawyer and the other the president’s top lawyer—is telling about the atmosphere in the Nixon Administration. It was clear to Liddy that Nixon would not disapprove of illegal activities in the name of winning the election. Attorney General Mitchell reviewed the plan and rejected it as too complicated, but two months later he approved a revised version that involved CRP members breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The men would bug the phones, so that all phone calls would be recorded and listened to by CRP, and then copy any important documents they found that revealed the Democratic strategy for winning the election. The men for the job were Liddy and two former CIA officials, Howard Hunt and James McCord. At this point, Mitchell resigned as Attorney General to take the job of Chairman of the CRP.
The “burglars”, as they came to be known, were not talented secret agents. They got into the DNC offices at the Watergate, and tapped the phones, but were unable to find any documents with important information. They broke in two more times looking for data, and on the third trip in, they were caught by a security guard. Frank Wills was working the overnight shift on June 17 when he saw masking tape covering the latches in a door (so the door would close but not lock). He took the tape off. An hour later, he came back and found the door had been re-taped. Wills called the police, and the burglars were caught red-handed in the DNC offices. Hunt, McCord, and three other men hired for the job were charged with attempted burglary and wiretapping. On September 15, they were indicted by a grand jury, as was Liddy, for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws. Judge John Sirica was the man who oversaw the grand jury, and he convicted the five men on January 30, 1973.
That is the description of the Watergate break-in that began the crisis. We see that there was already a crisis in the Nixon Administration, even before the break-in(s) took place, in that it was committed to a by-any-means-necessary election strategy that condoned criminal activity in the name of re-election. Whether Nixon knew about the break-in before it happened remained a question for many years; it seems clear now that he did not know in advance. But his men were sure he would not disapprove. They did not tell him about the break-in beforehand simply because they didn’t think they needed to—they felt sure it would have his approval. The HBO documentary “Nixon on Nixon: In His Own Words” that is airing now is powerful proof of this. By playing some of the thousands of hours of recordings made of Nixon talking to his advisors and other people, it shows that Nixon was constantly urging his men to commit crimes to stop people he considered to be his enemies, long before Watergate. He ordered his men to break into the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank which he considered too liberal, and commanded that they blow up the safe there and destroy its contents. When Senator Edward Kennedy requested Secret Service protection because of death threats, Nixon tells his advisor to get Kennedy two men who will spy on him and find some scandalous information that Nixon can use to ruin Kennedy’s career. The advisor replies instantly that he has a Secret Service agent who has pledged to do anything for him, including committing murder, if he is asked. Nixon approves this man as Kennedy’s bodyguard, saying “Good, good” when he hears about the man’s willingness to kill for the president. If murder was okay, mere robbery and wiretapping were nothing at all.
We’ll end this installment by clarifying something that, like so many features of this crisis, was once common knowledge but is now mostly lost. Presidents before Nixon had sometimes tape-recorded their conversations in the Oval Office, but he was the first to record all conversations—phone calls and face-to-face. He only told three men in his administration about this. Everyone else was unaware that they were being recorded. These tapes would be discovered during the Watergate investigation, and used to prove Nixon’s involvement in criminal activity, as well as his overall coarseness, bigotry, racism, and aggression, all of which shocked the nation. Nixon used so many four-letter words that had to be bleeped out that the transcripts of the tapes read “expletive deleted” wherever they appeared, and this became a bitter catch-phrase Americans used at the time to describe the president’s overall negative and hateful agenda.