5 Arrested for Breaking into Watergate Hotel and Office Complex, Washington DC
Five men, three Cuban exiles, one Cuban American and the leader James McCord, a former CIA agent and security co-ordinator for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign committee, CREEP, entered the building with cameras and pen-size teargas guns. A security guard noticed that the locks had been taped over and caught them red-handed. The police found rooms across Virginia Avenue where they had been eavesdropping with sophisticated bugging equipment.
Although there was no immediate link to the White House detectives did find the White House telephone number of the re-election committee in one of the burglar’s belongings. Gradually events took over and two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with a US District court judge, John Sirica and members of the Senate investigating committee, started an investigation that led to the very top and the impeachment of a President on August 8th 1974. Woodward and Bernstein were to win a Pulitzer Prize for their account in the book, ‘All The President’s Men’ that was also turned into a 1976 film starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.
The story starts well before this however. In November 1968 Richard Nixon, aged 55, the former Vice-President, defeated Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest elections in US history. In June 1971 the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ on the Vietnam War that came from the Department for Defense. On September 9th the White House ‘Plumbers Unit’, so-called because they stopped leaks in the White House administration, burgled a psychiatrist’s office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst who had leaked the papers. Subterfuge and espionage, it seemed, was de rigueur.
Then the break in on June 17th 1972 to the headquarters of the Democratic Party and the capture of five seemingly random personnel. The campaign to re-elect Nixon was brutal and aggressive. Nixon wanted a much more comfortable win this time. The country was divided by the war in Vietnam and there was a lot at stake. As the weeks and months went on the story began to get closer and closer to the President himself. One of the key sources for the journalists was an anonymous one, known only as ‘Deep Throat’. Eleven years after the death of Nixon, ‘Deep Throat’ was revealed as Associate Director of the FBI, Mark Felt. This was confirmed later by both Woodward and Bernstein.
On June 19th former Attorney General John Mitchell, head of CREEP denied any involvement in the burglary. By the end of September, it became apparent that Mitchell, when he was holding that office, had controlled a secret fund to finance intelligence gathering and more questions started being asked. In August Nixon himself made a speech denying any involvement and most people believed him. That same month though, a cheque for $25,000 was placed in the bank account of one of the burglars. It later transpired that hundreds of dollars was paid by the Nixon campaign into the accounts of these 5 burglars as hush money.
On 11th November Nixon was re-elected by one of the largest majorities – he gained 60% of the vote – against Senator George McGovern. The questions, though, simply would not go away. The following year, 1973, the district judge, John Sirica, read out a letter from the leader of the break-in group, James McCord, saying that the White House had conducted a cover up to conceal the links to the break in. Various Nixon aides resigned to take the sting out of the situation, but the story kept running.
On July 13th 1973 Alexander Butterfield revealed under testimony that Nixon had recorded all conversations in his office and on the telephone since 1971. Five days later Nixon reportedly disconnected this link and then the following week refused to hand over all the tapes of the conversations. By October the heat was turned up further with a special Senate committee and a special prosecutor demanding information. On 20th Nixon fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, using his executive power. The attack dogs were getting closer to the truth. On December 7th the White House were unable to explain an eighteen and half minute gap in a subpoenaed tape that it had been given access to. It appeared that someone had wiped it. By April 1974 the White House released 1200 pages of edited transcripts to the House Judiciary Committee. The latter insisted that the full tapes be handed over.
By July the issue had reached the Supreme Court. They rejected Nixon’s claim of executive powers but the tapes were still not handed over. Thus on July 27th the committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment on the grounds of obstructing justice. On August the 5th the tapes were released and it became obvious that the President was implicated in the burglary. Three days later Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, was gone. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, the Vice-President, who six weeks later pardoned Nixon of all charges relating to Watergate. Some of his aides were not so lucky and were sent to prison. Nixon never admitted to criminal wrong doing but did admit to errors of judgement.
The damage done was not just to Nixon and those jailed but also had a profound effect on the way the population now viewed its politicians – with cynicism and distrust. Ford’s reputation cannot have been harmed too much as he only lost very narrowly to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election losing the popular vote 50.1% to 48.0%. Nixon’s name, however, will be forever remembered for dishonesty, treachery and criminality.