On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C., police responded to the prestigious Watergate complex, where they arrested five men for breaking into Democratic Party headquarters.
The operatives had entered to place bugging devices inside the opposition’s nerve center. The Democratic Party was just weeks away from nominating Sen. George McGovern for president.
For his part, President Richard Nixon dismissed the bungled break-in as “a third-rate burglary,” perpetrated by some overzealous supporters such as may be found in any dynamic movement.
At first, the fiasco appeared to be an isolated incident that would pale against bigger concerns. America, at that time, was trying to extricate itself from the long national nightmare known as the Vietnam War.
Foreign policy loomed large, as Nixon had returned from his historic trip to Communist China, thus ending more than two decades of an icy standoff with the world’s largest nation. Nixon was also committed to detente with the Soviet Union, America’s archrival.
On the homefront, America’s middle class struggled as inflation eroded the buying power of their hard-earned dollars. Wage and price controls Nixon had imposed in 1971 had not slain the economic dragon, and 1973 would bring alarming prices for food and energy. Sound familiar?
All the while, questions about the “third-rate burglary” nagged the body politic. The story commanded attention, and two enterprising Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward, pursued the winding and growing tale of criminality that led to the Oval Office.
Other media outlets joined the effort in unearthing one of the most sensational political scandals in American history. What became known as Watergate gripped America for more than two years.
If you were around then, you probably remember the various pieces of the puzzle demanding to be put together:
— The Committee to Re-elect the President was involved in money laundering.
— Reports of demands for “hush money” for the burglars
— The revelation of a secret tape-recording system in the White House
— Conversations between Nixon and his top staffers about how to handle the developing story and attempts to “cover up” the president’s involvement
— Reports of Nixon’s “enemies list” who were targets of government surveillance
— Nixon’s formation of a group known as “the plumbers,” who were supposed to stop “leaks” of information from inside the White House
— “The Saturday Night Massacre,” Oct. 20, 1973, when Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Counsel Archibald Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. His subordinate, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, likewise refused to oust Cox, and also resigned, causing the quick promotion of Solicitor General Robert Bork to acting attorney general. Bork followed Nixon’s order to terminate Cox, who had sought virtually free access to Nixon’s tapes and records. Rather than extinguishing the widening probe, the abrupt toppling of the three legal officers exploded into a firestorm across the country.
— An informant known to Bernstein and Woodward as “Deep Throat” guided the pair in their search for information. Deep Throat, later revealed to be Mark Felt, a senior leader of the FBI, gave leads to Bernstein and Woodward, who would then have to do the legwork to piece together the big picture.
— The scandal, with congressional hearings broadcast to the nation, culminated in Nixon’s resignation in disgrace on Aug. 8, 1974.
Now, years after Watergate, we still wonder why some human beings become so obsessed with power and/or money that they will do anything to get it and hold on to it.
When you get right down to it, all of us — members of a fallen race feeling no accountability to a Higher Power — have the potential for our own Watergate. And in so doing, we will tell ourselves, “I’m not a crook.”