History’s Greatest Lies – 1972: Watergate Scandal

 

With respect to the investigation presently underway in Washington DC by special counsel Robert Mueller into the activities of the campaign committee of the forty-fifth president of the United States, and how that may transpire, The Watergate scandal is arguably the greatest political scandal in US history.

Following a break-in by five men at the Watergate office complex, home of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972, the administration of President Richard Nixon attempted to cover up its involvement. After the five were caught and the conspiracy revealed, the incident now simply known as Watergate was investigated by the United States Congress.  President Nixon’s administration resisted its probes, which led to a constitutional crisis.

To best understand the Watergate scandal, it’s important to know a little about the mind of Richard Milhous Nixon and what motivated him. A former assistant to President Nixon, Alexander Butterfield goes some of the way revealing how his former employer thought and what drove him.

The term Watergate has come to encompass many of the clandestine and illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration. Those activities included such dirty tricks as bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious. Nixon and his close aides also ordered investigations of activist groups and political figures, using the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as political weapons. Historian Timothy Naftali, clinical associate professor of public service at New York University and Rufus Edmisten, former member of the Senate Watergate Committee provides an insight into the lengths to which President Nixon used and abused mechanisms of government to maintain his power and position.

Watergate led to the discovery of a great many abuses of power by the Nixon administration. It also led to an impeachment process against the President of the United States, beginning that would ultimately lead to articles of impeachment and the President’s resignation.

This all begins with the arrest of five relatively incompetent burglars on the evening of Saturday, June 17, 1972. The subsequent FBI investigation’s forensic accountants discovered a connection between cash found on the hapless burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), the official organisation of President Nixon’s campaign.

By July 1973, evidence mounted against the President’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The investigation revealed that President Nixon had a recording system in his offices and he had recorded a great many conversations.

After a series of protracted court battles, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that the President was obliged to release the tapes to government investigators. The President willingly handed over these tapes to the investigation in the steadfast belief that they would clear him of any wrong doing. Perhaps one of the most well-known whistle-blowers in political history, the disquietingly codenamed Deepthroat, dropped a revelatory bombshell about these tapes in the investigation being conducted by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for the Washington Post.

There were some technical issues with these tapes.

The Rose Mary Stretch, sounds like a type of low impact exercise, it is however the term given by a justifiably sceptical press named in honour of President Nixon’s long-time secretary Rose Mary Woods. This manoeuvre essentially resulted in the redacting of critical evidence implicating the President.

It is one of the more outlandish details of this extremely murky and complex political scandal. At a crucial point during the Watergate investigation, approximately 18 ½ minutes of the White House tapes came up missing. Brave Rose Mary stepped up to claim responsibility.

In testimony, Ms Woods claimed that she had been transcribing the Oval Office conversation in question, when, due to the ergonomics and set-up of her desk, she reached over to answer a phone call, and in doing so, accidentally hit the erase button, keeping her foot on the transcription machine’s pedal, which forwarded the recording.

When the missing tapes were eventually handed over, they revealed that President Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the break-in at the Watergate Building and extensively used federal officials to deflect the investigation.

Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. A shrewd political move as it effectively prevented the House from impeaching him. What is perhaps somewhat offensive in terms of the legal process, is that the 37th President of the United States received a Presidential pardon from his successor, Nixon’s former Vice President, Gerald Ford, less than a month later.

It’s fascinating but not all that surprising that the name Watergate and the suffix “-gate” have since become synonymous with political and non-political scandals in the United States, and many other parts of the world.

 

By: R. J. Hawksworth