5. Nixon and the Watergate Scandal
CREEP, John Mitchell's Secret Fund, Watergate Burglary, Washington Post, The Watergate tapes, Impeachment of President Nixon, Impact of Watergate, New Legislation
Nixon and the Watergate Scandal
Reasons for Watergate
In 1972, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, stood for re-election. The Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP. soon popularly known as CREEP) was set up to raise funds for the campaign. CREEP and other White House groups got information about the Democrats using money from a secret fund run by John Mitchell, the Attorney General. It paid for spying and sabotage. Nixon's aides broke into buildings and bugged them or stole material that might compromise the government or help to smear the Democrats.
On the night of 17th June 1972, five burglars were caught in the offices of the National Democratic Committee in the Watergate office building in Washington. All but one, a locksmith, had government connections. From the start, two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were suspicious. As they investigated, they found out that it had been a professional job, that the men carried thousands of dollars in cash and that one of them was on CREEP's payroll. The day after the Washington Post announced this, Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, secretly discussed forcing the FBI to drop the burglary investigation. Publicly, a White House spokesman refused to comment on 'a third-rate burglary.' From the start, Nixon seems to have thought it was possible to cover up how far he and many senior people in his government were involved in what had happened.
The Watergate Tapes
From 1971, well before the break-in, Nixon had been secretly taping conversations and phone calls in his office. He was not the first president to do so. The policy began under Franklin Roosevelt, who came to power in 1933. Very few people knew about this, however - certainly not the American public. It was these tapes, once their existence became known, that allowed investigators to sort out, to an extent, how far the President and his aides were involved in setting up the burglary then trying to cover it up.
The Washington Post
No one knew the extent of the scandal to start with. Even when the Washington Post showed a connection between the burglars and CREEP, many people thought it was supporters of Nixon going too far - they did not believe the White House could be involved. Even most newspapers ignored the story at first. If Woodward and Bernstein had not carried on investigating, the cover-up might have worked. But they were convinced the burglary was part of something bigger and that the White House was involved. So, helped by police sources and a secret FBI source, they went on digging. They had not found enough evidence by November to affect the election. Nixon won, with 60% of the vote.
Why was it a scandal?
What did the president know, and when did he know it? This was the question that occupied everyone's mind. In many ways the thing that most concerned people about Watergate was not the break in but the cover-up and the way Nixon and his most important officials in the White House had lied. The scandal was that they could not trust their president to be truthful or behave honourably. Nixon's initial denial of involvement in the cover-up was undermined by the evidence that the tapes were altered before they were handed over. This was enough for the Senate to impeach Nixon. When the 23rd June tape (on which he discussed stopping the FBI investigation) was released, it proved he had been involved from the start and that his television appearances and speeches denying involvement had been a lie. This tape was the 'smoking gun' that implicated Nixon in the crime that left him with no alternative but to resign.
The Impact of Watergate
Watergate's Effect on Nixon
The most obvious effect of Watergate on Nixon was that he resigned - he lost the presidency. He also faced trial: the Attorney General recommended prosecution. However, on 8th September 1974 the new president, Gerald Ford, granted Nixon a full pardon for any offenses committed over the Watergate period. He said he was doin athis for the sake of the country, to end the matter, rather than have it dragged out over years in court. Nixon, in his response, came the nearest he ever came to admitting involvement, saying, 'the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way' and was a burden he would have to carry for the rest of his life. He is remembered by many people only for Watergate, despite the fact that his diplomacy with leaders in the Soviet Union and China had led to a real improvement in relations between those countries and the USA.
Watergate's Effect on US Politics
Watergate had wide-ranging effects on US politics. In the short term, White House officials and Republican politicians suffered. Over 30 White House offici went to prison, the Republican party lost 48 seats in the House of Representatives and 8 seats in the Senate and the Democrats won the next election. Watergate also had long-term repercussions too as American politicians felt that their reputation worldwide had been damaged. The public also became more cynical about their politicians and less willing to trust them. Finally, the media became more critical of government and more willing to 'expose' without full evidence, political scandals.
After Nixon's resignation, Congress set up an investigation into the powers of the president and found that, since 1950, presidents had been using powers given to them in 1950 as emergency powers. In 1976, Congress passed the National Emergencies Act that introduced checks and balances on presidential power, including limiting their use of emergency powers for two years. Watergate led to laws that affected all politicians, too. In 1974 a bill amending the Freedom of Information Act gave people the right to see documents about themselves and to change them if inaccurate. The 1978 Ethics in Government Act said government officials had to make the finances of their work publicly available. It also set limits on the work that people could do once they left government jobs, to prevent them taking advantage of things they might have learned while working for the government.
Their outside help
Part of the cover-up
MRBUDDHISTORY.COM was created in 2012 in order to support the learning of students in History. The site is devoted to creating high-quality and accessible teaching and learning resources for history education. Based in Hong Kong, Mr. Budd is a teacher of History at Island School, ESF. Visit www.islandschoolhistory.com for more resources and the latest news from the Island School History Department.