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Read the Washington Post's analysis of the Watergate scandal, produced for the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1997. Includes a timeline and description of key players.

More about the tapes, which became public in 1996, from CNN.com

Read the transcript of Nixon's resignation speech



The "Third Rate Burglary" that Brought Down a President

Carl in his D.C. office with a picture of Archibald Cox
"I came to Washington with a purpose -- to investigate and prosecute the president of the United States." Carl Feldbaum began his compelling story about Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. As a member of the special prosecution force against Nixon, Carl had some interesting thoughts to share.

It was a great way for me to learn more about Watergate, a word that most people have heard, but many people don't really understand. So, before we get to Carl's story, here's a run-down on the events that caused the scandal:

It started in June of 1972 when five burglars were caught breaking in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex with wiretapping and photo equipment. Soon it was reported that one of the burglars -- James McCord -- had been a CIA employee, and was working for the Nixon campaign at the time as part of the Committee to Re-elect the President (known as CREEP).

Watergate: a funny lookin' hotel that went down in history
Nixon is a Republican, and during a campaign year, someone on his team is breaking into the Democratic headquarters? Hmm, seems a bit fishy, doesn't it? Now we know that these were the beginnings of a major scandal. The White House, however, denied any connection, saying it was no more than a "third-rate burglary." Most of the public didn't seem to be paying much attention, and five months later, Nixon was reelected by a landslide over the Democratic candidate, George McGovern.

But Watergate was by no means going away. In the beginning of 1973, the five burglars, plus two other organizers -- CREEP lawyer G. Gordon Liddy and White House consultant Howard Hunt -- were found guilty by a grand jury of wiretapping and conspiracy.

Even some of Nixon's strongest Republican backers in the House were ready to impeach him
And then, one by one, people in the Nixon administration began talking. High-up officials and even Nixon himself became implicated, not only in the Watergate burglaries, but also in the attempt to cover it up. These allegations led to the resignation of Nixon's chief of staff (H.R. Haldeman), domestic affairs adviser (John Ehrlichman) and the president's counsel (John Dean).

Yikes! By now, people were definitely paying attention. The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities began public televised hearings on the Watergate affair.

At this point, it was decided that the Justice Department would not be independent enough of the president to conduct an investigation. A special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed by the attorney general and confirmed by the Senate.

This is when Carl came down to D.C. to be a part of the prosecution team. The day he arrived, he remembers watching the Senate hearings on a grainy black and white T.V. and finding out, through the testimony of a White House aide, that Nixon had set up a system to tape-record conversations in the Oval Office. If there were a cover-up, then it would all be on tape! What a way for Carl's first day in D.C. to begin!

Watergate just added to the public's distrust in the government
Archibald Cox and the prosecution team with whom Carl was working sought access to the tapes, but the White House refused to turn them over. Instead, Nixon's response was to order that Cox be fired. The attorney general and deputy attorney general both refused to do it and were forced to resign. But, finally, the order was carried out, in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." The public was outraged, and a flurry of impeachment resolutions soon came out on the House floor.

Carl remembers the evening well. "We were having a party when we got a call that the president was going to fire Cox and the FBI was going to shut down our office. We already had some of the tapes in a safe that I hadn't even had the chance to listen to yet. So we got in the car and drove to the office. We were wearing casual clothes and my wife put the tapes in her jeans. Right then, the elevator door opened and the FBI came out with their guns pointed! But my wife walked right through them, got on the elevator, and headed down." The tapes made it to safety!

The F.B.I may have come to seal the office, but it didn't stop the prosecution team from doing its job.

"Yes, Cox was fired but were the rest of us? We decided that the order was vague and that we hadn't been. We were all outraged, but nobody let that get to him. Nobody quit."

It's a good thing, because the case against Nixon was growing stronger.

The tapes that had been turned over had been tampered with -- one of them had eighteen and a half minutes missing from it! The accusations started flying, leading Nixon to say, "People have the right to know whether their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook."


College Hoops Rule!

But things were not looking good. Senate inquiry and various testimonies had made public other abuses of power. The White House kept an "enemies list" of journalists, intellectuals, politicians, and labor and business leaders. The president used the Internal Revenue Service to harass political opponents. The White House established a "plumbers unit" to investigate leaks to the press; they were the group that burglarized Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office after he leaked copies of the top-secret Pentagon Papers.

It was also discovered that American Airlines, Gulf Oil Corporation, ITT, and other huge American corporations had made millions of dollars of illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign.

Meanwhile, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after being investigated for corrupt practices when he was governor. The charges were not really Watergate-related, but just one more bad mark against the administration.

And then came the "smoking gun." After the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon must turn over all subpoenaed tapes, one was released in which the President was heard directing his aides to demand that the CIA stop the FBI's investigation of Watergate.

Goodbye! Nixon steps down as president
After that display of obstruction of justice, all members of the House Judiciary Committee favored impeachment. But, in August of 1974, before he could be impeached, Nixon resigned - the first, and so far, the only, president to do so.

Gerald Ford, who had become V.P. when Agnew resigned, now took over as president, saying, "Our long national nightmare is over."

Woodward and Bernstein watch Nixon's resignation
One of his first acts was to pardon Nixon for any crimes he had or may have committed -- an act that was widely criticized at the time. Carl explained the reaction of his colleagues. "We were outraged, really angry. We felt very strongly that no person in U.S. society should be held above the law, not even the president."

Yet, there you have it: a president being pardoned for all his wrongdoings, while many of those serving under him were thrown in prison (albeit for relatively short terms).

So, was Watergate an example of the system working or the system almost not working?

According to Carl, it was definitely the former. He believes the "brilliant balance of powers" set up by the Constitution helped save the day. "The institutions of this country are very sound, very stable."

Senator John Glenn argued, however, that the system of checks and balances did not do its job. It "did not work initially in Watergate. It did not protect us against those abuses. That is fundamental." Some argue that it was just luck that Nixon got caught, or that it was only the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that brought the abuses to light.

Although most American newspapers were celebrating the successful end to the crisis, the editor of a French paper, Le Monde diplomatique, wrote, "The elimination of Mr. Richard Nixon leaves intact all the mechanisms and all the false values which permitted the Watergate scandal." For instance, the influence of money and the government's connection to corporate interests still remained a significant part of the system. Although some reform legislation came out of Watergate, campaign finance is still a major issue even today.

For better or for worse, Nixon was ousted, but the system remained the same.

The good thing, though, is that our system is one in which people have the power to participate. Carl feels that this is one of the lessons we should all take from Watergate. "If you want to change the country, you can. You can run for office, you can get involved at all levels -- local politics, the school board, whatever you want."

Now, I could sit around and be frustrated that I do not have millions of dollars to illegally contribute to the government to get my way, but Carl is right. If we want to change the system, we have to get involved.

"Watergate made me an optimist. It gave me a greater sense of respect for the way the country's set up -- not necessarily how it runs, but how it should run, how it can run."

I had never really thought of Watergate as an optimistic event. For most people in the 1970s, it just added to a growing distrust and disillusionment with the government. But, as it does for Carl, Watergate can give us hope -- a hope that our government can and will live up to its full potential.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The 444 days Americans were held hostage in Iran
Jennifer - What the heck is OPEC? And how does it affect me?
Stephanie -The frigid blast of military might known as the Cold War
Daphne - Mary Jane and Jack Daniels can really screw you up
Nick - A deadly bullet and a mishandled trial: Dark days for America
Making A Difference - America: home of the free and the brave? Stephen - Hey! Pass some of that cold cash with acid rain garnish my way