At 2.30am on 17 June 1972, police officers arrested five men burgling the Democratic Party offices in Washington DC’s Foggy Bottom neighbourhood. The building complex in which the offices were based had gained a reputation for crime, but these men were not – as an FBI agent later noted – “ordinary knuckleheads”. They were well-dressed, with expensive cameras, eavesdropping equipment and rolls of sequentially numbered $100 bills. As it soon transpired, they didn’t seem like typical burglars precisely because they weren’t. One of the men, retired CIA agent James McCord, was head of security for the Committee to Re-Elect the President – known by its abbreviation CRP or, more mockingly, Creep. He worked, in other words, for Richard Nixon’s campaign to secure a second term in that November’s presidential election.
Nixon’s press team distanced the president from what they termed a “third-rate burglary”. Despite the denials, however, the incident and its unlikely protagonists set in motion a chain of events that caused a national scandal, and eventually forced Nixon to resign the presidency. This long national nightmare took its name from that soon-to-be infamous building complex: Watergate.
The roots of the crisis extended back to the previous year, to the weekend of 12 June 1971. President Nixon’s eldest daughter, Tricia, had married in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, which was covered by newspapers around the United States, including in a front-page story in the New York Times the next day. But that same edition also ran a piece that painted the White House in a much less favourable light, reviewing the findings of a study of American military involvement in Indochina between 1945 and 1968. The research suggested not only that the US had covertly widened the scope of the Vietnam War, but that the administration of Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B Johnson, had misled both Congress and the public about this. The details of what became known as the Pentagon Papers were revealed after the report was secretly copied by a former Department of Defence analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, who had contributed to the study.
On the podcast | Clifford Williamson charts the twists and turns of the conspiracy that sparked a constitutional crisis – and brought down a president:
Nixon was outraged by the leaks and, furious at what he regarded as a lack of action by FBI director J Edgar Hoover, set out to discredit and prosecute Ellsberg. Key among Nixon’s initiatives was the creation of a special White House unit dedicated to stopping the dissemination of secret documents. When one of its leaders, David Young, explained to his grandmother at Thanksgiving that he had been tasked by the president with helping stop leaks, she reportedly said: “Oh, you’re a plumber!” The White House Plumbers had gained their name – which was reportedly used on a sign at the office that Young shared with ex-FBI agent G Gordon Liddy and their fellow operatives, until they were reminded of the covert nature of their work.
It was this work that had first led the White House Plumbers to the Watergate Complex late in May 1972. The unit wasn’t averse to employing illegal methods: earlier, in September 1971, it had broken into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in a bid to uncover information that might damage his defence. Their latest initiative, to wiretap phones in the Democratic Party’s headquarters, had initially appeared successful. But they had hit a snag: although listening equipment had been deployed, it was not all functioning properly in providing the information that the White House demanded. The decision was therefore made to return to the complex to install devices in the offices of Larry O’Brien, chair of the Democratic National Committee. It was during this mission, early in the morning of 17 June, that the men were apprehended.
The task for Nixon and the other members of Creep now was threefold: to keep the scandal at bay; to silence the burglars with hush money; and to destroy any physical evidence. The president was personally most involved in the first of these objectives and, on 23 June 1972, he met with his chief of staff, HR Haldeman. The two men devised a strategy: enlist the CIA to tell the FBI to keep its distance, on the grounds that this was a matter of national security. Nixon was, in effect, organising a criminal conspiracy in a bid to pervert the course of justice.
Although the CIA played along, a crucial division was emerging within the FBI. When Hoover died in May 1972, Nixon loyalist L Patrick Gray had been appointed acting director – a decision that had left Gray’s deputy, Mark Felt, feeling overlooked and aggrieved. Felt had befriended a young Washington Post journalist named Bob Woodward, and that same month provided information for the reporter’s story on the recent attempted assassination of Democratic candidate George Wallace, who was left paralysed after being shot while campaigning in Maryland. Now Woodward turned to Felt for the scoop about what had happened at the Watergate complex, which Felt provided using a pseudonym that has since become famous: Deep Throat.
Along with another Post reporter, Carl Bernstein, Felt and Woodward went on to be instrumental in unpicking the threads of the story. And things were already starting to unravel: within hours of the Watergate arrests, FBI agents had discovered the name of Liddy’s fellow Creep member E Howard Hunt in the address books of two of the burglars. All five, as well as Hunt and Liddy – who had coordinated the break-in from a nearby hotel – were indicted on 15 September 1972.
On 7 November, Nixon was announced as the winner of the presidential election, securing more than 60 per cent of the popular vote. Late that December, as Gray disposed of his Christmas wrapping paper, the acting FBI director also destroyed incriminating evidence that had been removed from a safe belonging to Hunt.
In January 1973, the burglars, Hunt and Liddy all pleaded guilty or were convicted for their role in the conspiracy. Yet Hunt, dissatisfied with the payments he was receiving to keep quiet and demanding more money in return for his silence, was proving to be a threat: after all, he knew details not only of the Watergate break-in but also of the September 1971 burglary at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
On 21 March, Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Dean, met with the president and Haldeman to discuss Hunt’s blackmail attempt. Talk in Washington had already started to turn to impeachment: Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, had met with Carl Albert, the Speaker of the House, to discuss reports that Creep had been involved in “shaking down” businesses for campaign contributions. That could potentially constitute an impeachable offence. Against that backdrop, Dean did not disguise his concern. “I think that there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got,” he warned. “We have a cancer within – close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily.” It would take, he suggested, a million dollars to keep Hunt and the other men quiet. Nixon responded: “We could get that.”
Meanwhile, James McCord – one of the Watergate burglars – had become unhappy. Just days before he was due to be sentenced in late March, he sent a letter to the trial judge, John Sirica. Political pressure had been applied, he claimed, to secure the defendants’ silence. He also alleged that the White House had been directly involved in the break-in and subsequent cover-up. McCord was offered immunity to testify in front of a grand jury in return for giving evidence to the recently formed Senate Watergate Committee, led by chairman Sam Ervin. In his testimony, McCord implicated Dean in the conspiracy.
With the net closing, Dean decided to offer evidence in return for immunity, and named White House domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman as one of the men behind the conspiracy. Dean’s testimony, sharp memory and plausible demeanour made him a star performer in the live televised committee hearings, which were increasingly becoming must-watch TV. One of Dean’s remarks was particularly intriguing: it felt, he suggested, as if his conversations with Nixon were being recorded. Although he didn’t yet know it, his hunch was to prove correct.
Almost two years earlier, on 10 February 1971, Nixon’s deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield had been called to a meeting with Haldeman’s assistant. The president, Butterfield was told, wanted a voiceactivated taping system installed in the White House’s Oval Office and on telephones throughout the building. Such a request wasn’t unheard of: his predecessor, Lyndon B Johnson, had made use of a similar system that Nixon had – somewhat ironically – removed upon taking office. This, however, was to be a more elaborate affair, known about by only a select group of people.
Now, following up on Dean’s mention of covert recording, Sirica began routinely asking witnesses whether they knew of any such taping system. On 13 July 1973, Butterfield – who was well-placed to know about the president’s day-to-day activities – was summoned before the committee. Questioned about Dean’s hypothesis, he replied: “I was wondering if someone would ask that. There is tape in the Oval Office.” A scandal initially sparked by bugging had been turned upside down by the president of the United States bugging himself.
Among the men most interested in the existence of the tapes was Archibald Cox. As the special prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate the Watergate scandal, he had led a team collecting evidence of criminal acts for the best part of a year. Now he moved to get hold of the recordings. He was initially thwarted by Nixon, who cited “executive privilege” to prevent Cox from gaining access. Some White House advisors even encouraged the president to destroy the tapes, though others warned that doing so would be seen as an attempt to further pervert the course of justice. It could, they cautioned, be the first article in an impeachment trial. Seeking another method of forestalling Cox, Nixon instead offered edited transcripts verified by senior Democratic senator John Stennis. Eventually published in 1974 as The White House Transcripts, they are notable for the hundreds of times the phrase “expletive deleted” was used to cover up the president’s profanity.
If the president had previously had cause to swear, the events of the summer of 1973 only added to his problems. That August, the Wall Street Journal reported that his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was under investigation for bribery, tax evasion, and other corrupt practices. The paper alleged that, while serving as Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland, Agnew had taken kickbacks from contractors involved in public works – and that the practice had continued into his tenure as vice-president, with Agnew receiving envelopes containing as much as $10,000 in cash.
Although Nixon had added Agnew as his running mate in 1968 due, in part, to his reputation for being tough on crime, he was not entirely surprised by the news: Maryland politics had long been dogged by accusations of bribery. The potential revelations added a new twist to an already complex situation, with prosecutors calling for Nixon’s impeachment now faced with the prospect of him being replaced by a vice-president also under investigation for a major crime. Months passed, during which Agnew continued to deny the accusations. With new details of both scandals emerging in the press on an almost daily basis, a constitutional crisis on a scale not seen in the US since the Civil War appeared increasingly likely. Finally, on 10 October 1973, Agnew pleaded no contest to a single charge of tax evasion. He avoided jail but was forced to resign, and was replaced by the leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, Gerald Ford.
Over the coming days, the already febrile situation escalated further. On 20 October, Nixon – desperate to rid himself of special prosecutor Archibald Cox – ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire him. Richardson refused, and resigned; so, too, did Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Finally, the third in command, solicitor general Robert Bork, followed the president’s orders. Nixon had got his wish – but at a cost. What became known as the Saturday Night Massacre sparked a storm of protest across the US, with thousands of people sending telegrams to Congress and the White House, many bearing two words: “impeach Nixon”. Within days, the House Committee on the Judiciary had set up an inquiry process, designed to investigate possible impeachable offences committed by Nixon.
In any case, even though Cox had been fired, the office of special prosecutor remained. On 17 November, Nixon tried to calm the situation with a televised press conference – held at, of all places, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It was during that speech that the president declared, infamously: “I am not a crook.” Brazen in its mendacity, the soundbite came to define the scandal.
The spring of 1974 brought a procession of calamities for Nixon as Ehrlichman, Haldeman and other advisors were indicted for crimes including perjury and money laundering committed in their bids to protect the president. Nixon himself could not be charged by a civil court; he would have to be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanours” through a trial in the US Senate. Such action against a sitting president was rare: before Nixon only Andrew Johnson had been impeached, his presidency surviving by a single vote in 1868.
This fact gave Nixon some degree of security – coupled with the fact that, since impeachment was a political trial, he could use his political capital to ensure support from loyal members of congress. Yet that loyalty would last only as long as the evidence seemed weak, and as long as no further damaging revelations emerged to further discredit the president. As a result, Nixon sought to keep the most dangerous evidence from making its way into the public domain. His lawyers fought every attempt to make the secret recordings public, including in the US Supreme Court, an arena in which they felt confident that executive privilege would prevail.
Other risks remained, however. The discovery by Nixon’s lawyers that one of the tapes, dated 20 June 1972, contained an 18-minute gap in the recording led to one of the most bizarre episodes in the whole saga. Nixon’s long-serving secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed that she had accidentally erased the first five minutes of the section while transcribing it. Asked by Sirica to demonstrate how she had done so, Woods failed to recreate her actions – unsurprisingly, because they were impossible. It soon emerged that the tape bore evidence of several attempts to erase the material, and Woods’ fumbled explanations made Nixon look even more suspect. By now, even his staunchest allies were deserting him.
The arrival of Sirica’s Grand Jury documentation in March 1974, naming Nixon as a co-conspirator, marked the beginning of the end. On 9 May, a formal process of impeachment started in the House Judiciary Committee. Among those assisting lead special counsel John Doar was recent law graduate Hillary Rodham – later Clinton.
The final blow came on 24 July 1974 when the Supreme Court ruled that the tapes were not covered by executive privilege, meaning that the president was required to deliver them to the district court. On 5 August, Nixon also released a transcript of the recording of him and Haldeman plotting to stop the FBI from investigating the Watergate break-in – which became known as the “Smoking Gun” tape. With his involvement clear, Nixon’s support evaporated. On 9 August, he resigned the presidency.
- Read more | Life after the White House: what the US presidents did next
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, granted the disgraced president a pardon within weeks. It was a move that enraged some – particularly because many of the people around him had not been so fortunate, and because it was Nixon’s choices that had resulted in his disgrace. He could have allowed the FBI investigation to go ahead; he could have aborted the cover-up. Instead, he was ultimately condemned by his actions, his vanity and his paranoia.
How Watergate loomed in US politics for decades
Watergate ended the presidency of Richard Nixon, but not his influence. He acted as an unofficial advisor on foreign policy for his successors until his death in 1994, a two-decade period during which he was able to at least partially salvage his reputation. The scandal brought disgrace to Nixon’s advisors, but also yielded some degree of fame: G Gordon Liddy, for instance, was able to carve out a career as a “shock jock” political commentator. Many others wrote personal memoirs chronicling the affair, offering competing accounts about their respective degrees of blame and responsibility.
Among the US population at large, the scandal cemented a sense of disengagement with politics. For liberals, Watergate amplified a feeling of unease, sparked by the Vietnam War, about the role and practices of government, and fed into the idea of a secret state conspiring to protect the powerful. Conservatives, meanwhile, pointed to the detachment of the east-coast political establishment, making increasingly fervent calls to “drain the swamp” from Ronald Reagan’s 1980s presidency onwards.
Although Nixon resigned before he could be removed from office, articles of impeachment have since become a blunt instrument and a regular feature of the US political process. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for lying under oath and obstructing justice but was acquitted on both counts the following year. Donald Trump was impeached, and acquitted, twice.
- Read more about the history of presidential impeachment
Finally, Watergate left us with a suffix for the ages – one that has been applied to a whole host of political and cultural scandals around the world since Nixon’s resignation.
Clifford Williamson is lecturer in modern British and American history at Bath Spa University