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Background on Watergate: "A Third-Rate Burglary"

June 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: It was 25 years ago today that a group of most unusual burglars broke into the Watergate office building in Washington, thus beginning the saga of American history known simply as Watergate. We have a discussion recorded last week about its legacy that follows this reminder by Kwame Holman on what it was.

KWAME HOLMAN: It began with what appeared to be a simple burglary on June 17, 1972. Five men were arrested in the act of breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office building.

A few days later the participants the so-called “third rate burglary” were connected to E. Howard Hunt, a former White House aide, and to G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel for the Committee for the Reelection of President Nixon. Three months later, Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury. Despite the linkages to his campaign, the president repeatedly denied any involvement tn the affair.

PRESIDENT NIXON: I was appalled at this senseless, illegal action.

KWAME HOLMAN: That November President Nixon won reelection to the White House by a landslide. He was just settling into his second term when five of the break-in defendants pleaded guilty, and E. Howard Hunt and James Macord, a private investigator working for Hunt, were convicted by a federal court jury for their part in the burglary conspiracy. The judge was John J. Sirica. At sentencing, he read in open court a letter from Macord. It charged that witnesses in the burglary trial had committed perjury and that the White House was involved in a cover-up of its connection to the break-in. Despite denials they had anything to do with it, four top Nixon aides were forced to resign. A special prosecutor was appointed to look into Watergate and a special Senate Investigative Committee undertook its own probe.

Throughout the summer of 1973, dramatic televised hearings slowly began to draw out the truth. The Senate Committee’s chairman was North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat with a reputation for savvy wrapped in a country boy image. But the committee’s ranking Republican, Howard Baker of Tennessee, crystallized the issue with one simple question.

FORMER SEN. HOWARD BAKER, Senate Watergate Committee: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

KWAME HOLMAN: Gradually the affair unraveled, and it became increasingly clear that Nixon and his aides had broken one law after another to cover up their involvement. They paid “hush” money to keep it quiet. They tried to use the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation. They invoked “national security” and “executive privilege” to shield themselves from the investigation. And they lied under oath to Congress.

H. R. HALDEMAN, Former Nixon Aide: President Nixon had no such knowledge of or involvement in–

KWAME HOLMAN: But the coverup began to fall apart when one of them, White House counsel John Dean, revealed his discussions with President Nixon.

JOHN DEAN, Former White House Counsel: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But many on the committee and among the growing audience viewing the hearings were reluctant to believe the smooth-sounding Dean. Then, in mid July, came a critical break and a shocking disclosure.

THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

ALEXANDER P. BUTTERFIELD, Former Nixon Aide: I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee issued a subpoena for tape recordings of White House conversations. President Nixon refused to honor the subpoena, citing executive privilege. A constitutional confrontation had begun.

FORMER SEN. SAM ERVIN, Chairman, Senate Watergate Committee: I deeply regret that this situation has arisen.

KWAME HOLMAN: For the first time in history, a committee of Congress took the President to court. In the bitter struggle for the tapes, the president ordered attorney general Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who led the quest for the tapes in court. They resigned rather than carry out the order. Mr. Nixon had Cox fired anyway. But the storm of public protest ultimately pressured Nixon into releasing some of the tapes to the new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. By the beginning of 1974, seven former presidential aides had been indicted and President Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Newspaper editorials and members of Congress increased their calls for the president’s impeachment. And in may, the House Judiciary Committee began formal impeachment proceedings.

FORMER REP. PETER RODINO, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: Make no mistake about it; this is a turning point, whatever we decide.

KWAME HOLMAN: On July 24th, across the street from the drama unfolding in Congress, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender all the tapes to the special prosecutor. Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 to approve an article of impeachment charging Nixon with obstruction of justice.

On August 5th, newly-released transcripts of the secret Oval Office tape recordings proved beyond a doubt Mr. Nixon, himself, had conspired in the coverup. Richard Nixon was finished and his friends in Congress went to the White House to tell him so. On August 8th, Richard Nixon resigned.

PRESIDENT NIXON: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

KWAME HOLMAN: A month later, Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974. But many of Nixon’s closest aides, including the attorney general and the White House counsel, went to jail.