By John Barron
The Watergate scandal ended with the only resignation of a sitting American president, but began forty years ago this week with a seemingly trivial burglary at 2600 Virginia Avenue in Washington DC.
1972 was a presidential election year and Republican Richard Nixon was seeking a second term as the unwinnable war in Vietnam dragged on. His Democratic rival, Senator George McGovern, was campaigning on a promise to end the war and bring the troops home.
Five men were arrested at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Building at 2.30 on the morning of June 17th trying to install a bugging device.
Two days later, a pair of young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reported that one of the burglars, James McCord, used to work for the CIA and was now a Republican Party security consultant with links to the White House Committee to Re-Elect the President — known as CREEP.
That October, the FBI revealed the break-in was part of a widespread campaign of dirty tricks and sabotage against the Democrats.
Former Nixon advisor and Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan explained their motives this way:
Now when we had them going into the voting booth in 1972 … did we want them thinking what a swell guy Richard Nixon is? No, a lot of people didn’t think Richard Nixon was a swell guy. We wanted them thinking "we cannot have George McGovern in the White House" ... It was a very successful campaign — unfortunately a lot of my friends went to prison [hearty laughter] … I guess it was because some of the things the boys were doing were a little overly-enthusiastic about our cause”.
Despite growing evidence the White House had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in, as well as engaging in a cover-up after the event, Nixon won re-election in a landslide, sweeping 49 of 50 states.
McGovern had tried to make the break-in a campaign issue, but missteps, including the selection of a running mate who’d received electric-shock therapy for depression, dominated the news. Watergate was still a convoluted, secondary story which few but Woodward and Bernstein thought would lead anywhere.
"Well I had been warning against the bad conduct of the Nixon administration," McGovern told me in 2008. "I warned against the implications of the Watergate break-in — I warned against other things I thought were illegal and improper and so I drew some satisfaction of the impeachment of President Nixon."
Almost a year after the break-in, Nixon’s former legal counsel John Dean revealed he discussed the cover-up with the President 35 times. Another former staffer told Senate investigators Nixon had a taping system in the Oval Office.
Those tapes and transcripts — one with a mysterious 18-and-a-half minute gap — were subpoenaed, and after the Supreme Court forced the President to release them, proved Nixon was part of the Watergate conspiracy and the cover-up.
After the House Judiciary Committee moved three articles of impeachment on August 8th 1974 — more than two years after the Watergate break-in — President Richard Nixon finally resigned.
Attorney-General John Mitchell was jailed. So were White House staffers, including John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, and Chuck Coulson. The "masterminds" behind the break-in, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were also sent to prison, as was James McCord.
Richard Nixon returned home to Yorba Linda, California, and was quickly pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford.
One can only wonder how different things could have been had the truth about Watergate been revealed before the 1972 election. Almost forty years later, George McGovern still looked back on that time with a wistful air.
"It’s too bad that we lost in ’72, it really is. That could have been a turning point in American history; if I had won I would have quickly taken the United States out of the war in Vietnam … I would have begun to divert the enormous resources we put in to the Vietnam war — close to a trillion dollars — to divert those resources to things like healthcare, universal healthcare for the United States."
But while the full story of Watergate came too late to affect the 1972 election, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, and investigations by Congress and the FBI, ultimately revealed a culture of illegality from the first days of the Nixon administration, including the discrediting of anti-war activists, undermining of political rivals, and even a plot to kill an American journalist who’d been critical of the President.
40 years later and the "-gate" suffix is still being applied to scandals, and many believe faith in the office of the American president and the relationship between politicians, voters, and the media has been damaged for all time.
And some of McGovern’s ambitions for America, including universal healthcare, are still out of reach.
12 June 2012