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“”No person, not even the President of the United States, is completely above the law; and the president cannot use executive privilege as an excuse to withhold evidence that is demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial.
|—Supreme Court of the United States, United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974)|
The Watergate scandal was the most important American political event of the 20th century, ruining the reputation not just of Richard M. Nixon, the president who resigned due to the cover-up, but of the entire goddamn presidency. Every successive president's reputation is ever so slightly tainted, simply because he was president, and therefore obviously a crook — such is the stain Tricky Dick left on the office.
“”[The dictaphone] is stuck on record. It won't stop recording things; so it's just what you want lying around the White House Counsel's Office because there's never been a problem with that before.
|—Oliver Babish, The West Wing|
The affair began in June 1972, when five men were arrested in the early hours of the morning breaking into the Democratic Party's headquarters at the Watergate hotel (which gave its name to the scandal) in Washington, D.C. They had photographic equipment and wiretapping devices on them. In the following months, connections between several of the suspects and one part or another of the White House were revealed.
In January 1973, seven men were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and bugging the Democratic headquarters, two months after Nixon was re-elected President of the United States in a landslide. G. Gordon Liddy, a Nixon operative, and E. Howard Hunt Jr., the White House contact who simultaneously was an employee of a CIA front company, were the ringleaders of the burglary.
After the arrests, Hunt blackmailed the Nixon White House to remain silent. John Dean (White House Counsel) paid him off with laundered Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) funds to pay the defendents legal bills, but this money trail was uncovered by the Washington Post. An FBI investigation started, but it was called off when the president directed the CIA to lie to the FBI and tell them it was a Bay of Pigs thing, hush hush. The president was captured on his own tape recording system (video) telling Bob Haldeman (his Chief of Staff) and John Erlichmann (his domestic policy chief) to manipulate the FBI with the CIA, and this tape was the "smoking gun" that proved the president knew about the blackmail and the cover-up just six days after the break-in. When the contents of the tapes were made public, even Barry Goldwater threw in the towel and told Nixon he should quit.
Nixon eventually resigned in 1974, thus avoiding a looming impeachment. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.
|—Nixon after learning of the Plumbers' arrest|
Every conspiracy needs an element of logic that begs skeptical review. In this case, the obvious question becomes "Why the hell would the President of the United States ever engage in such unbelievably bizarre, criminal behavior of the pettiest type?"
The Plumbers were an outside organization hired to fix leaks after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover refused. Hoover had been burned in the McCarthy era on numerous cases when his questionable methods and doctored evidence were thrown out as civil rights abuses, even though guilty parties, in Hoover's estimation, walked. The immediate motivation in the Nixon era had to do with the mess Nixon "inherited" in Vietnam. Despite trying to 'Vietnam-ize' the peace process and 'de-Americanize' the war (through a series of illegal bombing campaigns in Laos and other idiotic ideas devised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) everything was failing in his effort to end the most unpopular war in American history. Most problematic was when Daniel Ellsberg photocopied the entire report he wrote about how badly America was doing in the War, the so-called Pentagon Papers, and dropped them off at the offices of the New York Times, in case they were interested in some light bedtime reading. The Papers essentially undermined the entire point of Americans supporting the war effort, and turned what had been an average protest movement into a national outrage, with serious Congressional sway.
They first engaged in a raid on the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, trying to sully the credibility of the informant. From there, the Plumbers evolved into a private quasi-legal force of thugs that the President employed to illegally spy on political opponents. The Plumbers would feed info to the Committee to Re-elect the President (now you know why they're mocked as "CREEP"), and the PR end would work from there in tangent with the campaign.
The free radical, of course, was Nixon himself, who was, by this point, bumbling around drunk and prone to paranoid fantasies about Jews and other nonsense. When his tape transcripts were published as a result of the investigation, it became clear that Nixon was insane with power, a crude little bigot who was using the federal government like chess pieces in his own bizarre war-games devoid of reality. He attempted to pit the FBI, CIA, and IRS against each other and his opponents to subvert the 1972 election, despite the fact he was already sweeping the Democrats with the Southern Strategy and his opponent, George McGovern, was tarred as a Commie-loving Stalin apologist by the GOP. The insanity was that Nixon never needed to even bother doing all these extracurricular shenanigans.
More than 70 people were convicted of crimes related to Watergate; some pled guilty before trial.
The main consequence was the collapse of public confidence in government and politicians in general that has never really recovered. Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election by campaigning as an outsider, untouched by Washington politics. Almost every election since – even those to school council in northern Rhode Island – has seen people running that play. Unfortunately, it still works even at the presidential level.
After Watergate, political conspiracy theorists could get a far wider audience for their views.
Other Watergate reforms include the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the War Powers Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the creation of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, the Federal Campaign Act which created the Federal Elections Commission. and the House and Senate standing Intelligence Oversight Committees.
And every damn controversy, real or fictional, has "gate" at the end.
- "Let me just say this, and I want to say this to the television audience: I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service — I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got." — Richard Nixon, not quite getting it
- "There will be no whitewash in the White House." — Richard Nixon
- "America must not again fall into the trap of letting the end, however great that end is, justify the means." — Richard Nixon
- "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." — Richard Nixon
- "Had they not brought down Nixon, we wouldn't have lost Vietnam. Had [they] not brought down Nixon, the Khmer Rouge would not have come to power and murdered two million people in a full-fledged genocide." — El Rushbo
The aftermath of the Watergate scandal has resulted in the introduction of a number of phrases into American (and world) culture, such as:
- "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
- "The previous statement is inoperative. This is the operative statement."
- "Follow the money."
- "I am not a crook."
- Expletive deleted
- The suffix "-gate" appended to virtually every scandal since.
- Watergate portal at Spartacus
- BBC's Watergate documentary, replete with ratfuckers (or if you don't want to watch multiple hours, a summary)
- The Best of the Senate Watergate Hearings, PBS
- The Boob Job, Slate
- That Mitchell and Webb Look: Watergategate
- Perhaps the most depressing tale from the whole shebang.
- 1973: Nixon takes rap for Watergate scandal, BBC.
- John Dean takes a fresh look at Watergate in 'Nixon Defense', Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times, July 31 2014
- http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/watergate/howardhunt.html E. Howard Hunt], Washington Post.
- Watergate and the White House: The 'Third-Rate Burglary' That Toppled a President (Aug. 8, 2014, at 12:01 a.m.) U.S. News & World Report.
- There was also the "18-½ minute gap," content erased from the recordings (which still cannot be recovered) — and with differing excuses given.
- Watergate in Fifteen Minutes
- Great mystery of the 1970s: Nixon, Watergate and the Huston Plan, By Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, CNN, June 17, 2015
- To Understand a Scandal: Watergate beyond Nixon, by David Sarias, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
- Christopher Hitchens (2001), The Trials of Henry Kissinger 
- Woodward and Bernstein (1974), All the President's Men 
- Woodward and Bernstein (1976), The Final Days 
- Looking back at when and why Americans trusted their government, BBC
- Watergate effects
- How Watergate Changed America’s Intelligence Laws, By Barbara Maranzani, History Channel, March 7, 2017
- The equivalent of shitting on a history textbook.