Why Watergate was such a big scandal?

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Why Watergate was such a big scandal?

Watergate is an incredibly interesting period of political history that is greatly misunderstood by many people today. It helps to think of the scandal not as a single ‘event’ but rather as a storm of linked occurrences that eventually reached a boiling point. As most are probably aware, the Watergate scandal had its genesis when a group of individuals were caught illegally breaking into the Watergate complex, which at the time was the Democratic Party’s national headquarters.

The exact purpose of the break-in has remained surprisingly nebulous, but generally it is assumed that the objective was to obtain political intelligence for use in the upcoming 1972 election. Jeb Magruder, who was deputy director at the Committee for the Re-election of the President and one of the main figures involved in the scandal, said in an interview that they wanted to get Larry O’Brien’s (who was chairman of the DNC at the time) opposition research on Republicans.

The reason why this scandal was so catastrophic to Nixon, his senior aides, and his administration was largely because of the coverup that followed that also caused the revelation of the other ‘horrors’ that had occurred within the Nixon White House. For what it’s worth, the generally accepted history is that Nixon was not aware beforehand and had certainly not ordered the Watergate break in itself. Eventually, the money trail of the Watergate burglars led to the Committee to Reelect the President (sometimes ironically referred to as CREEP), which was linked to key figures of the Nixon Administration like John Mitchell who had served as Attorney General. CRP was involved in many legally questionable activities such as money laundering, maintaining slush funds, and many of its members eventually committed perjury when questioned about its activities.

To cut a very long story short (and skipping over some intermediate steps of this scandal), it eventually became known that Nixon maintained a taping system in the Oval Office, at his study in Camp David, and at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The existence of this taping system was revealed by Alexander Butterfield during his Senate testimony. These tapes were immediately subpoenaed but Nixon refused to comply by citing executive privilege.

Subsequently, after the special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused to compromise with Nixon over the tapes, Nixon ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. He refused to do this and instead resigned. Then, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fire Cox. He also refused, so Nixon fired him. The next in line was Robert Bork, who did eventually fire Cox. This event is known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Despite Nixon’s best efforts, after the unanimous United States V. Nixon Supreme Court decision, he was eventually forced to hand over the raw tapes of his conversations. These tapes revealed a vindictive, petty, and rude President that contrasted strongly with his public image.

One of these tapes is the ‘smoking gun tape’. This conversation caused his political support to completely evaporate. You can listen to this tape here. Essentially, Nixon agrees with Haldeman’s plan of using the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in under the guise of ‘national security’, a clear obstruction of justice. Furthermore, other tapes reveal more disturbing information of the coverup, such as Nixon’s endorsement of ‘hush money’ to participants of the Watergate burglary. Also, other abuses of power such as using the IRS to audit Nixon’s political enemies were also uncovered.

Facing certain impeachment on at least one count of obstruction of justice, Nixon resigned on August 9th 1974. Dozens of Nixon’s top officials were found guilty of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy and subsequently many had to serve lengthy prison sentences. Nixon himself, of course, was spared such a fate by virtue of Gerald Ford granting him an absolute pardon.

It’s truly difficult to succinctly tell how deep the malfeasance ran during Nixon’s presidency. So many shady and unethical things were done by people who were extremely close to Nixon. Here is just one example: this tape is a conversation between Nixon and John Ehrlichman, who served as Nixon’s top domestic policy advisor. This conversation is fascinating. Nixon asks Ehrlichman if he had ever heard of a fake letter from JFK to President, Diem. Ehrlichman not only says that he is aware of it but that Charles Colson (one of the President’s closest advisors) was the driving force behind this fabricated cable. Nixon is astonished. This tape helps to show just how deeply the unethical behavior festered in the White House. The President’s closest associates were involved in blatantly illegal and immoral activities. We can only wonder what happened in the 18 and a half-minute section of the tapes that was suspiciously erased.

Sources
1. Abuse of Power by Stanley Kutler
2. Nixon’s Tapes.

Last modified: September 1, 2017

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