Watergate, 40 Years On
After midnight on June 17, 1972, five men broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Discovered by a security guard, the men were arrested, tripping the most massive scandal ever to engulf the White House—a “cancer on the presidency,” in the words of presidential counsel John Dean. The Watergate affair led to the resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974, a unique event in American history.
If not for the crack investigative work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, 20-something reporters for The Washington Post, the Watergate affair might never have mushroomed into such a devastating political scandal—one that brought down the president, several of his top aides and numerous others associated with the White House and Richard Nixon’s campaign organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, later CREEP). Intrigued by the Watergate burglars’ CIA connections and suspecting higher authorities had ordered the break-in, Woodward and Bernstein were able—with effort, ingenuity and luck—to trace a money trail leading from CREEP to the burglars, who intended to bug the Democratic National Committee office. The men were eventually linked to the secretive Special Investigations Unit, a.k.a. the “Plumbers,” commanded by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy and tasked by White House and CREEP officials with playing “dirty tricks” on Nixon’s enemies. Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting made their careers, and they turned their Post stories, and the story of how they got them, into the best-selling book All the President’s Men. Two years later they followed with another best-seller, The Final Days, an exhaustive account of the scandal’s conclusion and Nixon’s resignation.
Legal action against the participants in the Watergate crimes and their cover-up resulted in the conviction of many Nixon administration and campaign officials, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, presidential advisor John Ehrlichman and former U.S. attorney general John Mitchell, who was Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign manager. But none of the president’s men, with one exception, could be called a rat fink. That exception is presidential counsel John Dean, who before Nixon fired him, in April 1973, had already begun secretly cooperating with federal prosecutors. In late June 1973 the nation was riveted when the debonair Dean, under a partial-immunity deal, testified at televised hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee and accused Nixon of involvement in the cover-up—a charge substantiated a year later with the Supreme Court–ordered release of secret White House audiotapes that implicated the president.
Several convicted Watergate conspirators—including Dean, who ultimately served just four months’ jail time—later made interesting career changes. Nixon hatchet man Charles Colson became an evangelical Christian promoter of prison ministries; Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy became a reactionary radio talk-show host; and Dean, while claiming to remain a political conservative, became a sharp critic of Republican extremists.
Pursuing their inquiry into the Nixon administration’s high crimes, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received assistance from a well-placed mole. This “deep-background” informant, never mentioned in their stories, was code-named Deep Throat—alluding to the pornographic film Deep Throat (1972), which had premiered just days before the Watergate break-in.
Woodward knew Deep Throat before Watergate and had occasionally used him as a source. His pseudonymous appearance in All the President’s Men and the system he devised for communicating with the reporter—involving messages furtively inscribed on Woodward’s home-delivery copy of The New York Times and clandestine, wee-hours meetings in a parking garage—lend the book a cloak-and-dagger dimension. As cryptically portrayed by Hal Holbrook in director Alan J. Pakula’s Oscar-winning film All the President’s Men (1976), Deep Throat crucially advises Woodward (Robert Redford) to “follow the money” to untangle the conspiracy (but he never utters that famous phrase in the book).
For decades Woodward and Bernstein fiercely guarded Deep Throat’s anonymity, and trying to guess the informant’s identity was a veritable parlor game among Capitol cognoscenti from the mid-1970s on—until a 2005 Vanity Fair magazine article revealed him to be former FBI associate director Mark Felt.
From the moment of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon’s closest advisors were hell-bent on concealing the burglars’ links to the White House and misdirecting the FBI investigation. That enraged Mark Felt, a career G-man who in 1972 was the FBI’s second-in-command and had been directing the bureau’s inquiry. Felt decided to violate professional loyalty by becoming an inside informant. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward pledged never to divulge Felt’s identity—a promise they kept—and Felt hoped to carry the secret to his grave. But in 2005, at age 91, Felt relented to his family’s wishes, agreeing to a Vanity Fair magazine profile that revealed him to be Deep Throat.
Felt’s decades-long refusal to come out was rooted partly in shame and partly in fear he might be prosecuted for his illegal leaks to Woodward. Ironically, Felt had been federally prosecuted in 1978 for warrantless break-ins he had authorized years earlier—that is, for aboveboard actions he took in his official FBI capacity. Convicted in 1980, he was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. So Felt and his former nemesis Nixon have at least that in common: Both received presidential pardons.
“Honk If You Think He’s Guilty!” was the slogan emblazoned on a popular bumper sticker in 1973 and 1974. “He,” of course, was President Richard Nixon. And yes, he was guilty as sin.
If Nixon had not resigned, he would certainly have been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose Judiciary Committee had already approved articles of impeachment, and he would likely have been convicted in a Senate trial. The so-called Watergate tapes proved Nixon’s participation in a scheme to obstruct justice. These audiotapes of conversations between Nixon and his subordinates had been recorded at the White House on a secret voice-activated taping system; the administration had refused to release the tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee until a Supreme Court order in the July 1974 United States v. Nixon ruling.
The president’s personal disgrace was colossal, but—unlike many Watergate conspirators who were convicted and imprisoned—Nixon never suffered legal consequences for his crimes. That’s because on September 8, 1974, the new president, Gerald Ford, granted him a “full, free and absolute pardon”—a very unpopular decision that probably cost Ford the White House in his 1976 race against Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Richard Nixon wasn’t an entirely bad president. Among his administration’s lasting accomplishments are the landmark pieces of environmental legislation he signed, as well as his establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In foreign policy he spearheaded the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China—an effort boosted by his own trip to China in February 1972. Unfortunately, the Watergate scandal may forever overshadow those achievements.
Doubly unfortunate, Watergate’s legacy includes a potentially indelible contribution to political language. Since Watergate, dozens of scandals—afflicting not just presidents but also first ladies, presidential candidates, state governors, foreign leaders and even sports figures—have been annoyingly tagged with the suffix -gate. Some of these involved truly serious wrongdoing (e.g., the Reagan administration’s Contragate, a.k.a. Irangate, scandal); some, though unseemly, were vastly less momentous (the Travelgate and Filegate scandals that dogged Bill and Hillary Clinton); and some were laughably trivial, like the 2007 Haircutgate brouhaha over presidential candidate John Edwards’s $400 coiffure.
Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, who had been a Nixon speechwriter, was first to adopt and promote the practice. Memo to the media hacks who keep it going: Enough already.
Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (R–Tenn.), ranking minority member of the Senate’s special Watergate Committee, famously asked the question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” How much, if anything, Richard Nixon knew in advance of the Watergate break-in and other illicit operations connected with the scandal—including a prior burglary and bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters in May 1972 that went undetected at the time—may never be discovered, but the Watergate tapes incontrovertibly revealed the president was party to the cover-up in the days following the burglars’ arrest. Especially damning was the “smoking-gun tape,” containing a June 23, 1972, conversation in which Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, concur in a plan to have CIA officials demand the FBI shut down its Watergate investigation for national security reasons.
Despite the evidence, Nixon maintained he was innocent of obstruction of justice. In the series of television interviews he granted David Frost in 1977—the basis for the play Frost/Nixon and its film adaptation—Nixon claimed to lack the “corrupt motive” needed to prove actual obstruction. But he also imperiously stated that “when the president [breaks the law], that means that it is not illegal.”
Richard Nixon is a disembodied figure in All the President’s Men; the central villain of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s story of skulduggery was obviously unavailable for comment. The journalist (sort of) who did get Nixon to talk about Watergate was British talk-show host David Frost. Frost, whose U.S. TV program had recently been canceled, was looking to revive his career; Nixon was looking to resuscitate his reputation—and was not unhappy about the $600,000 Frost had agreed to pay him for their chats, which were videotaped in Monarch Bay, California, in 1977.
Nixon and his advisors anticipated softball questions and thought he could easily outmaneuver the genteel, lightweight Frost. The tale of how those expectations were upended—and how Nixon was cornered into admitting he had lied and “let the American people down” (without, however, admitting criminal guilt)—is told in Peter Morgan’s 2006 play Frost/Nixon and its 2008 film adaptation, in which Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) reprise their stage roles. Langella’s Nixon is a lugubrious tyrant without a country. It’s a brilliant portrayal, while not perhaps totally capturing the psychological weirdness of the real Nixon, who in the actual interviews seems simultaneously avuncular and psychopathic.