The scandal began with a botched burglary that initially attracted little attention but ended two years later with the first and only resignation of a president.
To many Americans, Watergate is a dimming memory, if that. A majority of living Americans were not yet born or were children when President Nixon was forced from office in 1974.
A summary of the events:
It was a story of political espionage gone awry in the midst of a presidential campaign, followed by a high-level cover-up that finally unraveled when Nixon’s secret White House taping system came to light.
Incriminating conversations, it turned out, were all on tape.
Six days after the break-in at the Watergate complex by the Potomac River, Nixon agreed to a plan to derail the FBI’s investigation of the burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s offices by claiming the probe would interfere with a CIA operation.
That conversation, when it finally emerged after a legal battle for the tapes that went all the way to the Supreme Court, put the final nail in Nixon’s political coffin, forcing him from office.
The tale began with G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI man who was finance counsel at the president’s re-election committee.
Liddy got $250,000 to implement a plan of dirty tricks and espionage that included late-night forays to install telephone bugs at the DNC office and scouring the party’s files for useful information.
Caught in the act at the DNC on June 17, 1972, five burglars working for Liddy were a novelist’s dream.
Among the burglars were James W. McCord, a 20-year CIA technician who was in charge of security at the president’s re-election committee, and four Cuban-Americans recruited by E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who had participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba. Hunt had gone on to author 42 spy thrillers and was working informally for the Nixon White House’s “plumbers” unit, set up to help stop government information leaks.
From the start, a couple of young unknown reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, pursued what they sensed was a scandal that went all the way to the White House.
Woodward was in court and heard McCord whisper “CIA” when the burglars were asked to identify themselves.
Though they kept the story in the public eye, Nixon won re-election in a landslide.
The Senate and the U.S. attorney’s office pursued Nixon’s aides, and with the pressure on, the president told two of them they would have to resign. He fired his White House counsel, John Dean, who proceeded to reveal the inner workings of a White House enmeshed in a scheme to provide hush money for the burglars.
Nixon insisted he knew nothing of any cover-up and that he never encouraged his subordinates to employ improper campaign tactics.
“That was and is the simple truth,” Nixon told the nation.
The cover-up collapsed when Nixon’s schedule keeper, Alexander Butterfield, told the Senate of a taping system that recorded every conversation Nixon had in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Lincoln Bedroom sitting room and the Camp David presidential cabin.