At 2.30 am on 17 June 1972, during the lead-up to the 1972 American presidential elections, five intruders broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. They were caught trying to install listening devices in the offices.
The break-in was a bungled follow-up to a forced entry the previous month when the same men stole copies of top-secret documents and wiretapped the phones. When the wiretaps failed to work, they returned to finish the job.
One of the intruders was James McCord, a former CIA agent, who was currently working for the Republican National Committee and the Committee to Re-elect the President.
Democrat Party chief Larry O’Brien immediately accused Nixon campaign staff of “political espionage”.
On 29 August, President Nixon announced publicly that an investigation of the break-in, led by White House counsel John Dean, was satisfied that Nixon administration officials were not involved in the break-in.
That November, Nixon was re-elected in the largest Republican landslide in history.
Rumblings about the Watergate break-in continued into 1973, and suspicion grew that the Nixon administration was unbelievably corrupt.
By the following January, seven men (known as ‘the Watergate Seven’) went on trial for their involvement: five pleaded guilty, with the other two – former Nixon aides James W McCord and G Gordon Liddy – convicted of breaking into and illegally wiretapping the Democratic Party Watergate Headquarters.
Then on 23 March, Watergate judge John J Sirica publicised a letter written to him by McCord, which claimed that Nixon Administration officials had applied political pressure to him and other defendants to plead guilty and keep quiet about the break-in.
As the house-of-cards began to fall, acting FBI Director L Patrick Gray resigned on 27 April after revelations surfaced that he had intentionally destroyed records involving the Watergate break-in.
On 30 April, President Nixon appeared on national television and accepted responsibility, but not blame, for Watergate. He accepted the resignations of advisers H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman and fired John W. Dean III as White House counsel.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the whole affair, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, opened televised hearings on 17 May to explore the alleged cover-up of the Nixon administration’s involvement in the whole Watergate affair
Americans watched a lot of Watergate coverage on the TV in 1973. From 17 May to 17 November, the three networks split live broadcasts of the hearings during the day, while PBS aired taped highlights in the evenings.
Between 25 June and 29 June, former White House counsel John Dean (pictured at left) testified before the Senate Watergate Committee.
In his testimony he implicated himself, White House Chief of Staff H R Haldeman, Assistant of Domestic Affairs John Erlichman, former Attorney General John Mitchell, and President Nixon in the cover-up.
Under sworn testimony, Dean stunned the US with revelations of the White House “enemies list”, a running tally of people targeted for IRS and FBI harassment because of their opposition (real or imagined) to the Nixon administration.
On 16 July former White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of secret recordings which President Nixon had made of White House conversations.
Special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon to hand them over as evidence but the President refused to release them. Nixon eventually offered a summary of the Watergate tapes in exchange for no further enquiries, but Prosecutor Cox rejected the offer.
On 17 November Nixon appointed Leon Jaworksi as special Watergate prosecutor, and later in the month he remarked to the Associated Press Managing Editors Convention; “People have the right to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook”.
But as the House of Representatives busied itself preparing eight impeachment resolutions, it was looking increasingly as if nobody believed him. The plot thickened when a tape which was released by the White House on 21 November was revealed to have had eighteen minutes erased from it.
In February 1974, a House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry against Nixon was approved by the House of Representatives. With 79% of American voters in favour of impeaching the President, he was rapidly running out of places to hide.
On 24 July the Supreme Court ordered the White House to honour Leon Jaworski’s subpoena of tapes and documents, ruling that executive privilege did not apply to Watergate evidence
The beginning of the end came on 5 August when President Nixon finally released tapes and transcripts which revealed his approval of the Watergate cover-up.
On August 8 he made a televised resignation speech, watched by 100,000,000 people, in which he admitted to having made some wrong decisions, but insisted that the real reason he was leaving was that Congress no longer supported him.
Ford claimed his actions were motivated by a desire to end the political divisions caused by the Watergate scandal, but the move effectively doomed his re-election campaign in 1976.
Throughout the Watergate hearings, two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (pictured below), worked hard to keep the scandal in the news. The pair owd much of their success to a secret FBI source known as ‘Deep Throat’ who steered them in the right direction, allegedly urging them to “follow the money”.
Deep Throat remained anonymous until 2005 when he was revealed as FBI number two, Mark Felt.
Woodward and Bernstein’s story was later immortalised in the movie All The President’s Men (1976).