On the first Thursday of every month, we throw it back to a classic political scandal. Today: WATERGATE, THE ORIGINAL -GATE! The Classic Scandal of the Month featured image has never been more relevant.
The Scandal: President covers up a cover-up of a break-in and bugging, gets caught, resigns.
The Scandalized: President Tricky Dick Nixon, G. Gordon Libby, E. Howard Hunt, assorted other goons; Checkers the dog cleared of all involvement.
The Short Version: Richard Nixon was a pretty popular guy in the early 1970s, but you can never be too sure in presidential politics. So a group of his cronies formed the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, or CREEP – by far the best scandal-related acronym in American history.
CREEP’s plans suited the name – they wanted to spy on the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Complex in Washington, DC. They broke into Watergate and wiretapped the place, a plan that CREEP general counsel G. Gordon Libby and former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt get most of the credit for.
The break-in and bugging went smoothly, but then the bugs stopped working. CREEP’s creeps then planned a second break-in. This time, a security guard noticed tape on the doors (preventing them from locking), and five CREEPers were caught red-handed inside the Democratic National Committee’s offices.
It’s possible that Nixon had no idea any of this was going on until the big bust, but once the news broke, he got pretty scandal-y with it. He claimed a full investigation had been done (it hadn’t) and set about covering the whole thing up.
The money trail led to the top, and Nixon’s re-election team was under suspicion even as he crushed George McGovern in the ‘72 election. It was a dark time. Hunter S. Thompson was never the same.
The scandal lingered, but it might never have gone much further if not for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Thanks to a source known only as “Deep Throat,” they connected the break-in back to CIA officer and Nixon stooge E. Howard Hunt.
By 1973, Nixon knew the score: he had to distance himself from the crew of cronies trying to cover up the break-in on his behalf. He decided to start a cover-up project of his own – COVER-UP-CEPTION – to separate himself from E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Libby, and the rest of the goon squad. He secured the resignations of key figures, but he did it on tape, because all of his conversations in the Oval Office were recorded.
Those tapes became a major problem for Nixon. Watergate was being investigated by Nixon’s own Attorney General’s office – Nixon had given Attorney General Elliott Richardson the authority to start an investigation outside of the normal Justice Department hierarchy – as well as by a special Senate committee. When the news broke that there were tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office chats, everyone wanted to hear them. Archibald Cox, who was running the Attorney General’s investigation, subpoenaed the tapes.
Nixon invoked executive privilege and ordered Cox to drop the subpoena. Cox wouldn’t back down, so Nixon told Attorney General Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned instead, and so did his deputy. Nixon eventually got his way, but the ugly incident and three high-profile departures were dubbed the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
The rising scandal and Saturday Night Massacre were killing Nixon in the public eye. Nixon responded with his famous “I am not a crook” speech, and his administration eventually released edited versions of the tapes. That wasn’t enough, and in U.S. v. Nixon, the Supreme Court demanded the unedited tapes. When those came out, Congress prepared to impeach the President. To add insult to injury, a final tape – the so-called “smoking gun” tape – came out, proving that Nixon had been involved since the early days of the cover-up(s).
That was it for Nixon. His remaining congressional allies deserted him, and impeachment was imminent. He chose to resign instead.
Scandal Level: A perfect 1.0 on the Watergate scale.