Thematic Window: the Watergate Scandal close window
The Watergate Scandal


When John Gardner formed Common Cause in August 1970 to act as a citizens' lobby to make government and politics more open and accountable, little did he know that in a few years the times would be ripe for reform. The Watergate scandal which brought down the Nixon presidency entails the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972, the cover-up of the break-in, and assorted scandals and improprieties that the investigation subsequently revealed. It was the worst scandal in American history for it was an attempt to subvert the American political process itself. It resulted in Richard Nixon becoming the first American president to ever resign from office, and prompted a wave of electoral and political reform.

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. The ensuing investigation uncovered the roles of White House consultant E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who was employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). In particular, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post doggedly pursued the story, especially the possibility that there was a direct link between the burglars and Nixon.

When Judge John Sirica sentenced the burglars on March 23, 1973, one of the defendents, James McCord charged the White House with trying to cover-up its connection to the break-in, including pressuring the defendants to lie. One of the defendants, Jed Stuart Magruder, changed his testimony and said he perjured himself at the urging of campaign head and former Attorney General John Mitchell and White House Counsel John Dean. In April of 1973, Nixon accepted the resignations of his top aides H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, Dean, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and announced that the White House would conduct an investigation into the matter. In May of 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, began its own televised hearings into the case. The hearings riveted the nation.

At the hearings, Dean accused President Nixon of direct involvement in the cover-up. There was no other evidence, however, until on July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a former White House staff member, testified that there were secret recordings of presidential conversations. The Committee and the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, subpoenaed the tapes, but Nixon refused to turn them over. In response, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Cox; Richardson refused and resigned as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Cox was eventually fired by the Solicitor General, Robert Bork. This was known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" and provoked a huge outcry at Nixon's abuse of power. On December 8, 1973, Nixon released seven of the nine tapes, and one of the seven had a huge gap in them.

As the contents of these tapes became public, a whole host of abuses became clear from the White House orchestration of the break-in into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, to dirty tricks against political rivals; from the use of the IRS to harass political enemies to the virtual sale of ambassadorships; and from the threat of rescinding government broadcasting licenses to harass the media to the solicitation of huge cash campaign contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations.

On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to hand over transcripts of the tapes. A few days later, the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment. On August 5, Nixon supplied transcripts that clearly implicated him in the cover-up. With his support eroding, Nixon announced his decision to resign on August 8, 1974. The next day, Vice President Gerald Ford became President.

The Watergate scandal was now over, but its effects were long-lasting. It immediately led to campaign finance reform legislation and other good government measures. But at the same time, the scandal fed into a growing disillusionment and lack of faith in government that exists to this day.

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