Watergate is a hotel in Washington D.C. where the Democratic National Committee held their campaign headquarters. The current president at the time was Richard M. Nixon, who was involved in the scandal himself and which lead to the cause of his resignation. The Watergate scandal should not have happened, but it did and it caused the American people to judge less of their government system.
The scandal began on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five men who were caught in the offices of the Democrat’s campaign headquarters. Their arrest uncovered a White House sponsored plan of espionage against the political opponents and a trail of intrigue that led to some of the highest officials in the land. The officials involved in the Watergate scandal were former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldman, White House Special Assistant on Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and President Nixon.
On April 30, 1973, nearly one year after a grand jury investigation of the burglary and arrest of the people involved, President Nixon accepted the resignation of Haldeman and Ehrlichman and announced the dismissal of John Dean. Furthermore, U.S. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned as well shifting the position to the new attorney general, Elliot Richardson. However, Elliot Richardson decided to put Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox in charge of conducting a full-scale investigation of the Watergate break-in.
Hearings were opened in May of 1973 by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities with Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina as the chairman. Suddenly, a series of startling revelations began as Dean testified that Mitchell had ordered the break-in and that a major attempt was under way to hide White House involvement. Dean also claimed that President Nixon had authorized payments to the burglars to keep them quiet.
The Nixon administration denied any involvement in the scandal, but the testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield exposed Nixon and unlocked the entire investigation. On July 16, 1973, Butterfield told the committee, on nationwide television, that President Nixon had ordered a taping system to be installed in the White House to automatically record all conversations. With this what Nixon had said and when he had said it was on the tapes and these tapes could verify everything. Cox immediately exposed eight relevant tapes to the court to confirm Dean’s testimony.
Nixon refused to release the tapes, claiming that they were vital to the national security. Therefore, U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica ruled that President Nixon must give the tapes to Cox, and an appeals court upheld the decision. Nixon still refused to turn over the tapes and on Saturday, October 20, 1973, ordered Richardson to dismiss Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
Finally, the solicitor general discharged Cox. Suddenly, a storm of public protest occurred, thus leading to the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Nixon, in his defense, appointed another special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, a Texas lawyer, and gave the tapes to Sirica. Unfortunately, some of the conversations were missing from the tapes and one tape had a mysterious gap of eighteen and a half minutes. Experts determined that the gap was the result of five separate erasures.
Nevertheless, on March 1974, a grand jury indicated Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and four other White House officials for their part in the Watergate cover-up and named President Nixon as an “unindicated co-conspirator.” In the following month Jaworski requested and Nixon released written transcripts of forty-two more tapes. The conversations revealed an overwhelming concern with punishing political opponents and
denied the Watergate investigation. On May 1974, Jaworski requested sixty-four more tapes as evidence in the criminal cases against the indicted officials. Nixon refused to turn over the tapes and on July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 that Nixon must turn over the tapes.
Thus, on July 29 and 30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, charging Nixon with misusing power in order to violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, obstructing justice in the Watergate affair, and defying Judiciary Committee orders. Then on August 5, 1974, three tapes revealed that Nixon had, on June 23, 1972, ordered the Federal Bureau in Investigation to stop investigating the Watergate break-in.
The tapes also showed that Nixon helped to direct the cover-up of the administration’s involvement in the affair. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 from presidency of the United States of America, instead of facing impeachment; Nixon was the first president in history to resign, and a month later, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor pardoned him for all crimes that he might have committed while in office. Nixon was then immune from federal prosecution.
Since the Watergate scandal began investigators have also uncovered other illegal activities. For instance, in 1971 a White House group called the “plumbers” had been doing whatever was necessary to stop leaks to the press. Also, a grand jury indicated Ehrlichman, White House Special Counsel Charles Colson, and others for organizing a break-in and burglary in 1971 of a psychiatrist’s office to obtain damaging material against Daniel Ellsberg, who had publicized classified documents.
Furthermore, investigators discovered that the Nixon administration had solicited large sums of money in illegal campaign contributions. They used the money to finance political espionage and to pay more than $500,000 to the Watergate burglars. In addition, White House aides testified that in 1972 they had falsified documents to make it appear that President John F. Kennedy had been involved in the 1963 assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Plus, they had written false and slanderous documents accusing Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of moral improprieties.
In the end, the Watergate scandal shook the faith of the American people in the presidency and turned out to be a supreme test for the United States Constitution. Yet, as the Founding Fathers intended, through the whole ordeal the constitutional system of checks and balances was used for its original usage, to prevent abuses of power. Watergate unquestionably showed that in a nation of laws no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States of America.
- Aitken, Jonathan. (1993). Nixon A Life. Washington D.C: Regnery Publishing, Inc.
- Emery, Fred. (1994). Watergate. United States: Times Books. Infopedia (1995). [Computer Software] U.S.A: Future Vision Holding Inc.