The scandal and cover-up that brought down a president
June 21, 2002 | Page 8
JUNE 17 marks the 30th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., by goons working for the president of the United States. Initially dismissed as a bungled burglary, the break-in spiraled into the worst scandal in U.S. history--ultimately forcing Richard Nixon to become the first president to resign in disgrace.
Today, the mainstream media are focused on speculation about the identity of Deep Throat--the anonymous source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the scandal. But as interesting as these details may be, the larger facts about Watergate shouldn't be forgotten.
The scandal gave an unprecedented glimpse of the shadowy world of spies, thugs and political fixers who operate behind the scenes in Washington--in fact, the very unelected power structure that the Bush gang wants to have unrestricted powers today.
ALAN MAASS and LANCE SELFA look back at the history of Watergate.
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ON THE evening of June 17, 1972, police caught five men trespassing in the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate office complex. The well-dressed burglars, led by former CIA agent James McCord, weren't after money. They were trying to plant listening devices in the DNC offices.
The five were part of a top-secret unit organized out of the White House--by Nixon administration operative E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the director of "security" for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Nixon's privately run campaign organization, known by the appropriate acronym CREEP.
Nixon had ordered Liddy and Hunt to put together a band of goons to track down administration leaks to the press--which is why they were nicknamed the "Plumbers." When the Plumbers got caught at the Watergate, the White House tried to shut down the investigation, paying "hush money" to Hunt, Liddy and the burglars.
But the Watergate story led journalists to other acts of political espionage. For example, Donald Segretti, a Plumber operative, was exposed for political "dirty tricks" against Democrats--leaking fake stories to the media to slander Nixon's potential opponents in the 1972 election.
The role of the media--and especially reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein--in tracking down the dirt on Nixon has been idealized over the years. By the standards of today's spineless lapdogs, the press scrutiny of Watergate looks impressive.
But for most of Nixon's time in office, the media, including liberal newspapers like the Washington Post, treated the White House with kid gloves. The official persecution of civil rights and antiwar activists by Nixon's Justice Department was largely ignored.
It was only after it became apparent that the White House was willing to target the Democratic Party, members of Congress and the press itself that the media--following the lead of sections of the ruling establishment--turned on Nixon.
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WATERGATE DIDN'T affect the 1972 election, which Nixon won by a landslide over Democrat George McGovern. But two months into Nixon's second term, McCord revealed the White House attempt at a cover-up in a letter to the judge presiding over the Plumbers' trial, John Sirica.
With the Senate announcing that it would hold hearings, Nixon looked for a fall guy. In April 1973, he announced the resignations of top advisers John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, along with Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and White House counsel John Dean--who was implicated as the mastermind of the cover-up.
Dean was certainly as guilty of conspiracy as anyone in the White House. But the attempt to single him out convinced Dean to break ranks. He testified before the Senate Watergate Committee--whose hearings during the summer of 1973, broadcast daily on national television, stunned the country.
The hearings revealed the existence of evidence that could incriminate Nixon--secret tapes of Oval Office conversations. But when senators subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon refused to hand them over, claiming "executive privilege." He continued stalling for more than a year, until the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to hand over the tapes.
Meanwhile, the scandal continued unraveling. In October, Nixon tried to fire the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, because Cox continued to demand the tapes. Nixon had to fire the top two officials in the Justice Department before he found a hack--right-winger Robert Bork--who would agree to remove Cox.
Nixon then ordered FBI agents to raid the special prosecutor's office--leading to a nationally televised confrontation with D.C. police assigned to guard the office.
Even the Washington establishment was angered by what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." "You just can't tell about this guy," Sen. Harold Hughes (D-Iowa) told another lawmaker. "You could have tanks in your front yard."
With his popularity ratings plunging, Nixon held on. But in July 1974--on the eve of the Supreme Court decision on the tapes--the U.S. House of Representatives voted for an impeachment trial of Nixon. A few weeks later, the Oval Office tapes revealed the "smoking gun"--a conversation between Nixon and top aides about a plan to involve the CIA in the cover-up.
Nixon didn't wait to be impeached. He resigned on August 8, 1974, turning over the White House to his new vice president Gerald Ford. And Ford returned the favor--issuing a presidential pardon to the mastermind of the Watergate conspiracy for any crimes he committed or may have committed while president.
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THE WATERGATE scandal was the culmination of the worst political crisis for the U.S. ruling class since the 1930s. The U.S. was nearing defeat in the Vietnam War--at the hands of a Third World liberation movement massively outgunned by the world's biggest superpower.
The mass movements for Black Power and against the war were shaking U.S. society, opening the way for other demands for fundamental change. Meanwhile, the economy was plunged into the first major recession since the Second World War.
As the crisis deepened, previously united U.S. rulers began to fracture. In Washington, Republicans and Democrats scrambled to find someone to blame. Nixon, accustomed to using espionage against domestic radicals, now turned the same tactics against his opponents in the establishment. This only stoked the outrage, causing even staunch Republicans to desert him.
The growing conflicts at the top of society about how to cope with the upheaval at home and the losing war abroad led to the revelations that showed people how their government really worked.
Nixon's Plumbers turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. After decades of acting as unelected powers behind the throne, the FBI and CIA were exposed as thugs and murderers--with nothing but contempt for people's supposed rights under the Constitution. The whole shadowy system that Corporate America used to buy political influence in Washington was put under a microscope.
By early 1974, the legitimacy of U.S. political institutions had dropped to all-time lows. A congressional opinion poll showed that garbage collectors were more respected than politicians.
Nixon was thrown overboard to rebuild credibility in the system. When Ford issued Nixon a pardon, he declared, "Our long national nightmare is over. The system works."
But for masses of people, Watergate proved the thorough corruption and injustice of the system. And that mass outrage had an impact.
In the years following Watergate, Congress was forced to muzzle the FBI and the CIA, imposing restrictions on the almost limitless powers of the government's security and law enforcement apparatus.
At the same time, reforms to the campaign finance system were toothless--succeeding only in opening up new ways for corporations to control their servants in Washington.
But the lesson of Watergate that needs to be remembered today--especially with Bush's gang on the rampage against our civil liberties--is the importance of the struggles of ordinary people that stopped the Vietnam War, forced concessions from Washington and revealed the corruption of the U.S. political system.