A Failed Gate: The Water of Scandal Flows Over Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon | Courtesy of Wiki Images

Winner of the Spring 2017 StMU History Media Awards for

Article with the Best Use of Scholarship

 

The Nixon Watergate Scandal was one of the worst scandal that a president has ever been embroiled in. Americans put all of their trust into this highest and more honorable position, and Richard Nixon, through his actions, completely destroyed that trust. It was a scandal that was completely unnecessary, putting himself and the country through an agonizing constitutional crisis because of dirty politics and a shameful and illegal cover-up. But that’s what makes the Watergate Scandal something incredibly important and worth knowing about. We will see dirty politics again, and have even since Watergate, which is why the parallels from Nixon’s presidency may well resonate with past, current, and future presidencies. We can learn from this scandal, and we may prepare the American public to deal with corruption like Nixon’s again, should it ever happen that our presidents abuse the powers of their august office like Nixon did.

President Nixon During a Campaign | Courtesy of Wiki Images

Richard Nixon was the thirty-seventh President of the United States of America and was the living embodiment of the idea that reputation takes a long time to build, but a short time to destroy. Nixon was born on his family’s farm and was immediately subject to struggle, as both of his parents were abusive, either physically or mentally, and two of his siblings died very early in their lives. All of this did not carve an easy path for the young man to pursue, and forced Nixon to work hard for the things he wanted; and despite the difficult path he was given, the drive and character he developed from this were subjectively worth it. Nixon attended college at Whittier College in California, to play football and further his academic career; and by his graduation as second in his class, he succeeded academically. Furthermore, he received a scholarship to Duke University Law School, with some help from the President of Whittier College, who said: “I believe Nixon will become one of America’s important, if not great leaders,” which would become at least partially true.1 His continued success did arrive at a roadblock when he didn’t obtain a position at any of the major New York Law firms. However, he did land a position in a law firm back in Whittier, in which he soon became a partner. He was also placed on the Whittier College Board of Trustees at the age of 26. Soon after, Nixon began federal work in the Office of Emergency Management. When World War II started, Nixon joined the army and had some success there, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. After the war, he had some congressional hopes. After earning his Congress membership, Nixon joined the House Committee and Select Committee on Foreign Aid, and was again quite successful. Nixon then went on to become strongly anti-communism, which doesn’t say much because most politicians were so at that time. However, Nixon garnered a lot of attention because of his strong opinions and views. This, coupled with other things, led him to be chosen for the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1952. He subsequently won this role. He served under Dwight Eisenhower, who believed that the Vice President should have more duties than previously. In this position, Nixon was again successful, which seems to be a recurring theme. Like many Vice-Presidents, Nixon went on to become the Republican nominee for President in 1960, but facing off against John F. Kennedy, Nixon lost the presidency by a mere 100,000 votes. After this, Nixon again lost the race for governor of California, and then went to work again at a law firm. This didn’t last long, however, as eight years later Nixon found himself the Republican nominee for president once again, but this time, his campaign ended in victory.2

Nixon took the office of President in 1969, and despite his important past, a new chapter in his life really started in that year. Nixon immediately went to work trying to bring an end to the Vietnam War, which was not going in his favor, as his conferences and talks never came to any sort of resolution, and the conflict just continued and even spread to neighboring Cambodia and Laos. However, he began recalling troops stationed there, and once most had come home around 1972, peace treaties seem a likely possibility. Nixon also worked to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads, signing the important Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreements with the Soviets about mutually limiting the production and total amount of intercontinental ballistic missiles both countries had. Nixon also made a historic visit to China, becoming the first president to do so. While trying to end the war abroad, Nixon also had problems at home, particularly economic problems with inflation. He sought to fight inflation by going off the gold standard and letting the American dollar float. All in all, Nixon had a mixed bag of a first term, with no real disasters and no major victories. That all changed quite quickly, and soon all of Nixon’s accomplishments would be overshadowed by his actions during the Watergate Scandal.3

The Watergate Complex | Courtesy of Wiki Images

The events that led to the Watergate scandal was put into motion about two years before the actual burglary that set off the chain-reaction for our commander-in-chief, but the unraveling and beginning of the end of Richard Nixon can be traced back to June 17, 1972. Before that date again, Watergate was not public news, and only members in the White House and Nixon’s administration knew of “a plan.” Analysts and those working in the Nixon administration during his first term believed that Nixon was probably going to lose his re-election. Those experts came to this conclusion by using the administration of Lyndon Johnson as a comparative. In other words, the Nixon administration believed that Nixon’s poll numbers and his public appeal matched those of Johnson’s a few years before, causing Johnson to decline running for reelection in 1968. To combat this perceived eventual downfall, Nixon and his administration began employing wiretapping, which was something that this administration had begun using earlier to spy on “enemies of the United States,” but actually to spy on anyone that posed a possible threat to his administration that might release any sort of information that could damage their reputation. This wiretapping culminated in a plan that centered on bugging the phones, taking pictures, and stealing documents from the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. The plan was put into action by a group known as the Plumbers, who had been trained in security and spying for the White House, to prevent leaks that could damage the Nixon administration. This group broke into the Watergate facility on May 27, 1972, and were quite successful. The group then also wanted to break into Senator McGovern’s headquarters, because he had became the Democratic nominee for president. This attempt was unsuccessful.4

Prior to the failed Watergate break-in, the team, and probably the members of the administration who were in on the plan, realized that one of the bugs was placed incorrectly, so the subsequent break-in was necessary. Thus, on June 17, 1972 the Plumbers team broke into the Watergate facility once again, and fixed the incorrectly placed bug. However, Frank Wills, a security guard at the facility, had noticed that doors had been taped open, and when he removed the tape and later found them re-taped again, Wills called the police. Five of the Plumbers were captured, and a phone number that belonged to E. Howard Hunt, a white house official, was found on some of the Plumbers, immediately linking the White House to the break in. Of course, with Nixon being the president, news of the break-in started stirring up questions over his possible involvement. Soon, the American people’s questions would be answered, as they watched their President lie and cover-up his administration’s illegal activities.5

Once the story of the break-in started coming out, Nixon and his staff began planning an elaborate cover-up in order to protect Nixon and the White House. This was the second worst decision Nixon ever made, following the break-in itself. Nixon’s choice to cover-up any White House involvement in the break-in, instead of just being honest with the American public and accepting the consequences, caused him the loss of the American’s people trust and ultimately the presidency itself. Nixon made his first speech regarding Watergate a little more than a month after the break-in, and like the entire cover-up, it was full of lies. Also, the men who were captured at the Watergate complex all pleaded guilty in court, in front of Judge John J. Sirica, who believed that more people than those captured were involved in the break-in.6

The break-in probably would have died down and Nixon might have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for key figures like Sirica believing that more people were involved, as well as a few journalists from the Washington Post, who continually attempted to dig deeper into the situation. These journalists began finding informants that, well, lived up to their namesake. As they gained more and more information, they began releasing this information to the public, and eventually they gained enough attention to cause others to begin digging into the situation themselves. The cover-up slowly began to fall apart. The media exposés and the information that was being brought to light only escalated when the Senate Watergate Investigation Committee began its investigations into the situation, discovering that a taping system existed that had recorded conversations taking place in the Oval Office.7

The discovery of these tape recordings of Nixon’s various conversations with his staff was the most important clue to discovering what really happened with the White House’s involvement in the Watergate break-ins. Nixon knew that if these tapes were publicly released, that his presidency would be over. To keep his secret safe, Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena from the Watergate Special Prosecutor Achibald Cox to hand over the tapes, but when he refused, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss Cox, but then Richardson refused and resigned; thus Nixon ordered deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to do the same, and now he refused and resigned as well! This loss of multiple higher-ups in the White House became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and set Nixon back once again. Furthermore, Nixon pleaded with the courts that the tapes contained only private conversations, and were protected by executive privilege and national security concerns. The United States Supreme Court did not accept that, and ordered Nixon to release the tapes. The fact that Nixon tried so hard to cover these tapes up, and fired many people that worked for him, began destroying the public’s trust in him, and many came to understand that he did indeed play some part in the Watergate heist. During criminal trials of others that were discovered to have worked on Watergate, about 200 hours of conversation were released in transcript, of about the 3500 hours recorded. On review of these transcripts there was an 18-minute gap where you can’t hear anything, and whatever was being talked about is still unknown today. But Nixon’s involvement now was quite clear, and it was obvious he had been covering everything up from the very beginning, effectively lying to the entire country. Now, the Watergate scandal involved the most important figurehead in the United States, and made front-line news everywhere. Repercussions came for Nixon in the form of impeachment proceedings.8

Portrayal of the Watergate Scandal | Courtesy of TIME

About two years after the break-ins, and after all of the evidence had been properly and thoroughly understood, Congress approved articles of impeachment, which outlined all of Nixon’s wrongdoings, with the biggest accusation being his involvement in covering-up and misleading the investigation of the break-in, followed by his actual involvement in setting up the Plumbers group and breaking into the Democratic Party Headquarters. By this time, everyone knew that Nixon was not going to get re-elected, and now the focus was on whether or not he should even be allowed to finish his current term, which he wouldn’t. Nixon knew this as well, and on August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned as President.9

Yes, this scandal caused President Nixon to resign from office, because if he hadn’t, he would have been removed anyway. But the more interesting question than why the person with the most respected and trusted job in the United States would do something like this, is why he did it. Like every politician everywhere, Nixon wanted to win his re-election, and to do this, he needed to campaign and market himself, which is something every politician does. However, Nixon and his administration believed that he was doomed not to win his re-election, and so they attempted to use their positions of power to do anything they could to gain information on and weaken the opposing Democrats by any means necessary. One of those ploys was the Watergate scandal. The irony is that Nixon probably would have won re-election anyway, if he had just played the game fair. The Watergate scandal was a completely failure, and now we see that it was pointless as well. 10

Nixon’s participation in planning the break-in was already illegal, but his actions in covering the incident up and lying to all of America has gone down in history as one of the worst things a president has ever done, and he and his legacy will forever be tarnished by it. It also showcases the fact that presidents are not above the law and must still answer to the people, and abide by the Constitution.

  1. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, 2001, s.v. “Nixon, Richard Milhous.”
  2. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, 2001, s.v. “Nixon, Richard Milhous.”
  3. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, 2001, s.v. “Nixon, Richard Milhous.”
  4. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig.
  5. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig.
  6. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig.
  7. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig; St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2013, s.v. “Watergate,” by Elizabeth Purdy.
  8. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig;  St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2013, s.v. “Watergate,” by Elizabeth Purdy.
  9. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2013, s.v. “Watergate,” by Elizabeth Purdy.
  10. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Watergate,” by Richard M. Flanagan and Louie W. Koenig.

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68 Responses

  1. Water gate. Not much can be said about this piece. Not necessary because it was good, more because of my lack of personal interest. I did however find myself going back after I read it to concisely pin point what I thought were the separation of piece which compiled the narrative. In that regard, such a great job. What I also really appreciated what how fluid this piece was. Placing my lack of interest aside, I found it very easy to make my way through this piece without losing myself.

  2. This is a great example of a good piece enhanced by media clips. The “I’m not a crook,” is so infamous that it needs to be seen. I like how you first tell us about Nixon’s accomplishments before telling us about his downfall. You even prefaced that one mistake will tarnish anything good one has ever done. Good job.

  3. This was a very informative article with a comprehensive biography of Nixon, all building up to the infamous Watergate Scandal. I’ve only ever heard bad things about Nixon as his professional career was stained with this scandal. It’s interesting to learn about his accomplishments beforehand and the motivations that ultimately lead to his downfall. I think you used images and videos of Nixon very well to tell the story, ending on his address of resignation. It is baffling how Nixon held the highest office in the nation but still made the decision to stoop so low.

  4. Good story, but Woodward and Bernstein don’t even get mentioned by name? I have not done in depth research on the Watergate scandal, but from the accounts that I have read they were essential in connecting the White House to the burgles. Plus the identity of their inside source has been a great mystery for the last 40 or so years. I enjoyed reading the rest of the story, great job placing the scandal within the accomplishments of the Nixon administration.

  5. I’ll be honest, I love reading and learning about presidential scandals. It just amazes me that people at this level of power and stature can do such acts. Now that being said, I understand that they are just people as well and the things we do on a daily basis that are considered flaws are things that if they were to do would or could also be considered scandals. In today’s world, our president is looked at with a microscope and although I don’t agree with many of his stances, I can’t imagine being in his shoes. President’s have huge shoes to fill but in the end, it is the method in which they choose to govern and the words they choose to use that makes the greatest of differences to their legacy.

  6. To start off, I love the title that the author decided upon. I never heard of Nixon’s younger years and so that was a change for me. Another interesting piece is the point of view the author takes. In some instances, the author places a positive light on the life of Nixon and that everything was not all bad. This was an eye opener to me because as a public historian I see myself as looking at the full story. I never thought to see the positives of Nixon’s professional career.

  7. Thanks for writing this great article, Cameron! You do an excellent job at setting up your story and communicating its significance from the very beginning. This is now a required reading in my graduate Advanced Public History methods course.

  8. The political impact of this scandal cannot be understated, as this was when people started to distrust the president and those in power. Nixon’s presidency greatly reminded us that we shouldn’t take the president’s word as the definite truth. I appreciate how you laid out the timeline of the Watergate scandal to make it easier to understand, as I’ve had trouble remembering the details of it in the past.

  9. When I went home during this past summer, I helped my brother study for his Academic decathlon class and their topic this year was the 1960’s. I was helping him build a timeline and saw that his social science packet included Watergate scandal which didn’t I didn’t understand why it was in the history of the 1960’s, but decided to just go with the flow. With this article, I can help him understand to a higher degree of what happened and what could have happened without Nixon’s intervention.

  10. I never really understood when people would talk about the “Watergate Scandal,” however this article was very informative that allowed me to understand the scandal a little bit better. I also liked that you implemented videos giving us more of a inside of what went on. I feel bad that Nixon went from the “most trust man in America” to a liar and perpetrator. I still don’t understand what would make him to something so illegal.

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