60-second history: Watergate

A bluffer's guide to the political scandal that brought down a president.

60-second history: Watergate (Public Domain)

What is ‘Watergate’?

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At 2.30am on 17 June 1972, five burglars were discovered in the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, in the Watergate Hotel, a mile or so from the White House. The break-in, which took place five months before the US presidential elections, sparked a series of events that changed the course of American history.

Why was this burglary different to any other?

June’s break-in was a bungled follow-up to a forced entry the previous month, when the same men had stolen copies of top-secret documents and wiretapped the office’s phones. When the wiretaps failed to work, they returned to finish the job. An FBI investigation revealed all five men to have links with the White House, in a chain of connections that went as high as Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon, and showed them to be members of the Committee to Re-elect the President – appropriately nicknamed CREEP.

What was Nixon’s response?

Keen to distance himself from the scandal, Nixon declared that no one in the White House had been involved, but behind the scenes he was launching a massive cover-up, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the burglars to buy their silence. What’s more, in a flagrant abuse of presidential power, the CIA was instructed to block the FBI’s investigation into the source of funding for the burglary.

What was the outcome?

Although Nixon and his associates had done enough of a cover-up to win him the election, the scandal continued to escalate. In January 1973, seven men (known collectively as The Watergate Seven) went on trial for their involvement in the affair: five pleaded guilty, with the remaining two men – former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord  – convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping.

The Watergate Hotel, where the break-in took place (Public Domain)
The Watergate Hotel, where the break-in took place (Public Domain)

Soon after, a letter, written by McCord, alleged that five of the defendants had been pressured into pleading guilty during their trial. Others, too, began to crack under the pressure. Presidential counsel John Dean, who had initially tried to protect the presidency, was dismissed in April 1973 but later testified to the president’s crimes, telling a grand jury that he suspected conversations within the Oval Office had been taped.

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A tug of war ensued with Nixon refusing to relinquish the recordings to Watergate prosecutors, but in August 1973, following moves to impeach him, Nixon released the tapes. These proved his complicity in the Watergate cover-up and on 8 August he announced his resignation, the first US president ever to do so.