The Watergate Scandal: Summary, Facts & Timeline

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  • 0:01 The Scandal
  • 1:10 The Break-In
  • 3:30 The Tapes
  • 5:45 Resignation
  • 6:25 The Timeline
  • 8:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
How did President Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972 lead to disgrace and resignation just two short years later? The story begins with a break-in in Washington D.C. and ends with a struggle for the trust of the American people, which you can read about in this lesson.

The Scandal

If you've ever heard the term 'Greek tragedy,' you may know that it's shorthand for a sad, regrettable event that didn't have to happen, and in fact wouldn't have happened, if only the characters had made different choices. For example, if only Oedipus hadn't killed his father, if Antigone hadn't buried her brother, if the quartermasters of the Titanic had turned two degrees more away from that iceberg…well, you get the idea.

Like a character in a Greek tragedy, President Richard Nixon also made some fateful choices, especially in regard to the Watergate scandal. The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s began with a burglary at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, located at the time in the Watergate Hotel, and ended with the resignation of President Richard. M. Nixon.

If the Watergate scandal had never occurred, President Nixon's administration might have been remembered for its domestic and foreign policy achievements. As a result of the Watergate scandal, it's remembered instead for its evasiveness and willingness to circumvent the law, which brought about the avoidable and sad end of a formidable political career.

The Break-In

The Watergate scandal hinged on a pivotal question posed by U.S. Senator Howard Baker during a senate hearing: 'What did the President know, and when did he know it?'

Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 in a tight contest with Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey. During that election, he ran as a moderate candidate, pledging to end the war in Vietnam with honor and to make a clean break from the controversial administration of Lyndon Johnson, his predecessor. By 1972, Nixon remained popular with most Americans and was expected to defeat his opponent, Senator George McGovern.

On June 17, 1972, two police officers responded to a report of a break-in at the Watergate, a hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. where many political professionals lived and worked. That year, it was also the home of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). When the police arrived and entered the fifth-floor offices of the DNC, they surprised five men carrying surveillance devices they were trying to attach to the office phones.

One of the men was James McCord, a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency and a Republican Party aide. In the address books of two of the burglars, police found the name H. Howard Hunt. A reporter at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, discovered that Hunt had also worked at the CIA and was connected to the White House.

Over time, it became clear that Hunt was part of a group nicknamed the 'Plumbers,' because they stopped political leaks and who'd been conducting a 'dirty tricks' campaign against the Democrats for over a year. Their activities included canceling Democratic rallies, spying on candidates, and stealing confidential files.

In spite of the publicized break-in, President Nixon won in a landslide. But thanks to the continuing efforts of newspaper reporters, especially the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the story soon grew in importance. Eventually, legislators and the public learned that the Watergate burglars had been financed from a 'slush fund,' a secret money account, kept at the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), or CREEP. In 1973, the U.S. Senate authorized a full investigation.

The Tapes

In the summer of 1973, the Senate began its hearings. During the testimony, they learned about a recording system installed in the White House, one that taped practically every conversation held in the Oval Office. The Senate committee insisted on having the tapes from the White House, so they could establish if the President knew about the break-in or the attempted cover-up that followed.

The President resisted, claiming that the conversations were protected under executive privilege. The term, executive privilege, refers to the president's right to withhold information from law or legislative authorities if he believes releasing it would compromise the public interest or security. According to President Nixon, the conversations held in the Oval Office were matters of national security; to make them public would prevent him from receiving frank advice and could endanger the country. However, the special prosecutor in charge, Archibald Cox, insisted on having the tapes.

On October 20, 1973, President Nixon fired Cox, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned in protest. The Saturday Night Massacre, as it came to be called, convinced many Americans that the President was hiding something. Nixon denied this, claiming at a news conference, 'I'm not a crook.'

Eventually, the issue ended up in the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, the Court ruled unanimously that the President had to release the tapes, and Nixon finally relented. During the examination of the tapes, investigators found an 18 ½-minute gap in a conversation. The President's secretary claimed she had accidentally recorded over this portion of the tape, which was later deemed unlikely.

On a tape from March 21, 1972, the President's counsel, John Dean, was heard telling Nixon that the Watergate cover-up was a 'cancer on the presidency' and referring to the 'hush money' that was paid to the 'Plumbers.' 'The smoking gun' tape from June 23, 1972, revealed that, only a few days after the break-in, the President told one of his aides to inform the heads of the FBI and the CIA not to investigate the incident.

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