On May 17, 1973, Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., gavelled in the first public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Senate Watergate Committee. The impending result was almost unfathomable.
The months that followed would bring testimony from White House officials and questions from senators on whether “illegal, improper or unethical activities” had been committed in connection to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign for re-election. What had started out as a story about a bungled break-in to Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex the previous summer eventually ended in the downfall and resignation of President Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974.
Four decades later, we look back at the process that engrossed the country and convulsed Washington with its unwavering characters and cliff-hanging moments.
Here are some of those figures and instances:
Sam ErvinUnless otherwise noted, all photos taken from archival PBS video of the Senate Watergate hearings.
Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. was chairman of the Senate Watergate committee in 1973.
At the start of the television hearings in May of that year, Ervin noted:
If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States. And if these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other precious property of American citizens, but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election.
Ervin joined the Senate in 1954. As a freshman, he served on a committee charged with studying whether Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., required censure for his anti-Communist investigations. In his 20 years in the Senate, the Harvard-trained statesman became well-known for his constitutional knowledge, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office. Ervin retired from the Senate in December 1974. He died April 23, 1985. He was 88.
Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., R-Tenn., was vice chairman of the Senate Watergate committee in 1973.
During proceedings, Baker asked a question that would become very well-known in Washington: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Baker served three terms in the U.S. Senate, from 1967 to 1985, and as majority leader for the last four years of his tenure. He was a presidential hopeful for the 1980 Republican nomination, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, worked as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff from 1987 to 1988, served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005 and co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in 2007. Baker, now 87, is senior counsel to the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was the Senate Watergate Committee’s chief minority counsel in 1973 and 1974.
Thompson, the lawyer turned lobbyist turned actor turned politician, wrote a Watergate memoir called “At That Point in Time” in 1975, served as special counsel to then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and to both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, ran for and won the special election for Vice President Al Gore’s Senate seat, and chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee from 1997 to 2001. Thompson lives in Washington, D.C., and has appeared in television movies and series, as well as 18 feature films.
A former officer in the CIA and FBI, James M. McCord was one of the five original men arrested for breaking into the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. He was later convicted of burglary, wiretapping and conspiracy. McCord had been hired by White House security liaison Jack Caulfield in January 1972 to provide security for the Republican National Committee and the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
When McCord’s March 1973 letter to Judge John J. Sirica — claiming that the defendants had pleaded guilty under pressure and had committed perjury — was read aloud in court, the story found sudden notoriety across the country.
In January 1973, Caulfield had told McCord the White House would grant him clemency, money and a job if he accepted his prison sentence and didn’t testify against members of the administration. When McCord relayed he had been offered clemency “from the highest levels of the White House” before the Senate Watergate committee on May 18, 1973, Nixon’s ties to the efforts of the White House to break into Democratic National Committee Headquarters surfaced — eventually leading to the president’s downfall. In 1974, McCord would publish a book about the scandal called “A Piece of Tape — The Watergate Story: Fact and Fiction.”
After serving as White House counsel from July 1970 to April 1973, John W. Dean III pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in October 1973. He spent four months in prison for helping cover up the role of administration members in the Watergate break-in and wiretapping before leaving his White House post.
Dean famously presented this turn of phrase before the Senate Watergate committee:
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. I also told him that it was important that this cancer be removed immediately because it was growing more deadly every day.
Barred from practicing law, Dean would later author several books including “Blind Ambition,” “Lost Honor,” “Worse than Watergate,” “The Rehnquist Choice,” “Conservatives Without Conscience,” and “Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches.”
Dean, now 74, occasionally appears on news and political television programs.
Known for fiercely calling himself “the president’s son-of-a-bitch,” President Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman served 18 months in prison for his role in Watergate.
Central to the Watergate scandal were tapes Nixon had made of White House meetings. And while investigators finally received access to them, one recording’s controversial 18-and-a-half minute gap would have included a conversation between Haldeman and the president. Once the Supreme Court ordered a subpoena of all the Watergate tapes, a “smoking gun” recording was found in which the president discusses with Haldeman a plan to have the CIA divert the FBI from the probe because it involved national security. Haldeman resigned in April 1973.
He’d later publish “The Ends of Power”, a memoir, in 1978 and then become vice president of the David H. Murdoch real estate development company. Haldeman died of cancer at his home in Santa Barbara on Nov. 12, 1993. He was 67.
On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, President Nixon’s deputy chief of staff from 1969 to 1973, revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee he knew of a taping system in the oval office of the president.
Fred Thompson: Mr Butterfield, are you aware of any listening devices in the office of the president?
Alexander Butterfield: I was aware of listening devices, yes sir.
Still feeling reverent of Nixon’s wishes at the time of his testimony, 39 years later Butterfield recounted to The Washington Post: “When Don Sanders, the deputy minority counsel … asked the $64,000 question, clearly and directly, I felt I had no choice but to respond in like manner.”
After Watergate, Butterfield became the administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
A former military prosecutor, Donald Segretti was known widely for his smear tactic campaigning against Democrats in 1972 while serving on the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Segretti spent four-and-a-half months in prison in 1974 for spreading illegal political campaign literature.
After an unsuccessful bid in 1995 for a Superior Court judgeship in Orange County, Calif., Segretti would later leave politics, citing the shadows of Watergate.
Jeb Stuart Magruder
For his involvement in the Watergate scandal and cover-up, then-deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President Jeb Stuart Magruder spent seven months in prison. A former aide to Chief of Staff Haldeman, Magruder was charged with perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He later left politics to become a Presbyterian minister in Marble Cliff, Ohio from 1984 to 1990 and then a senior pastor in Lexington, Ky. Magruder retired in 1998 to become a consultant.
John D. Ehrlichman was President Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs from November 1969 through May 1973. Closely connected to the White House “plumbers unit,” Ehrlichman had also been involved in the break-in at the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.
After resigning from his White House post and serving 18 months in prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, Ehrlichman moved to New Mexico and authored several titles, including “Witness to Power: The Nixon Years.” He’d later move to Atlanta in 1991 to become a business consultant.
In 1997 after the Nixon recordings were released to the general public, Ehrlichman would explain to the NewsHour the kind of audience that would keep in the Oval Office when the president gave orders that were seemingly illegal.
There were many times that you simply did not call Richard Nixon in a situation like that if you wanted to continue to do business with him. He could freeze you out. So they were being very politic, I guess, and letting him spout off. That was the Queen of Hearts syndrome, we called it, “off with their heads.”
Ehrlichman died on Feb. 14, 1999. He was 73.
Richard Nixonphoto courtesy National Archives
On Aug. 8, 1974, after a grueling congressional investigation, President Richard Nixon gave his 37th and final speech as the the president of the United States:
To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
Leaving the oval office with two “indelible marks”, Nixon — who started his career in politics in 1946 — returned home to San Clemente, Calif. with his wife, where they lived until moving to New York City in 1980 and then Bergen County, N.J. in 1981. Nixon traveled throughout the U.S. and the world during his retirement, suggesting diplomatic relationships and maintaining speaking appointments. He also published nine books and helped plan his presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom. Photo by Ken Feil/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Intrigued by a June 18, 1972 story — in which five men were held for plotting to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee — Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began investigating the arrest. The story would enthrall Washington, lead to the Senate Watergate hearings and land Woodward and Bernstein a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting, along with Hollywood fame and over a dozen book deals. Bernstein left the Washington Post in 1976. Woodward is now an associate editor for the newspaper.
Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer
In the summer of 1973, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer led public broadcasting’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings — co-anchoring all 250 hours of the proceedings, and launching the beginnings of what the PBS NewsHour is today. Their partnership and creed of journalism would go on to change not only the face of television journalism, but also their lives.
- NewsHour Extra: Lesson Plan
The PBS NewsHour is marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings with reflections from Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, who covered the hearings gavel-to-gavel. Watch their conversation with senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown on Friday’s NewsHour.