The Scandal That Took Down a President Still Resonates
Ah, the summer of ’73 — for me the summer between high school and college. So what do I remember? Day after day of the Senate Watergate hearings, broadcast live on U.S. television.
The Watergate anniversary is pegged to the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters on June 17th, 1972. But the Watergate saga dragged on for more than two years and eventually forced Richard Nixon to become the first U.S. president to resign from office on August 9, 1974.
There are many chapters to Watergate. The early reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that first brought the scandal to light. Then there was a television phase that began with CBS and Walter Cronkite devoting time to the scandal based largely on the Post’s early reporting. Next came the Senate Watergate hearings with its multitude of characters, both senators and witnesses, that transfixed the nation during the spring and summer of 1973.
The hearings produced so many great moments to recall. Republican Senator Howard Baker asking witnesses over and over again, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The revelations from White House aide Alexander Butterfield of a White House taping system that would play a crucial role in the eventual downfall of Richard Nixon. And the testimony of White House aide John Dean, a key figure in the White House efforts to cover up administration involvement in the break-in and other nefarious activities, especially his warning to Nixon that Watergate had become “a cancer growing on the presidency.”
I was only a spectator to all of this but one of my VOA colleagues, David Dyar of the VOA English Web desk, covered Watergate as a young reporter for United Press International. I asked him for recollection of what it was like to cover the most consequential political scandal in U.S. history.
VOA Reporter Remembers
“I was able to witness many of the events surrounding Watergate as the scandal slowly implicated President Nixon and his White House staff,” Dyar says. “I was a reporter covering the courts in Washington for UPI when the scandal began unfolding, and as luck would have it, the federal court house in the capital became the prime focus for many of the key events that led to President Nixon’s resignation.
“One of the key figures in breaking open the scandal was Judge John Sirica. I sat in numerous sessions in his court room as he faced a wall of silence from the Watergate burglars who were being paid hush money by Nixon’s aides,” Dyar continues. “The day in 1973 that he ordered severe prison sentences for the burglars if they didn’t start talking was one of key events in the unraveling of the cover up.
“After that, the court house became what was in effect ground zero for news coverage as we were able to witness many of the most powerful people in the Nixon administration being brought to the court to testify before the grand jury. It was one of the most exciting beats a reporter could have at that time.
“But covering the White House on the night President Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor who was seeking oval office tape recordings on Watergate was truly a case of being a witness to history,” Dyar concludes. “That decision opened the flood gates for demands that he be impeached. And President Nixon resigned nine months later.”
Nixon was always the main character
As Dyar notes, the central character in the Watergate drama was always Richard Nixon and so many of the video images of Watergate feature him. As the scandal unfolded, the true Nixon came out under the glare of klieg lights. “I am not a crook”, he famously declared at one news conference. And then with the release of the White House audio tapes, including all the deleted expletives and insulting characterizations of friend and foe alike, the public began to get a very different view of a man who often appeared controlled but uneasy in public.
Nixon was elected in 1968 as America was buffeted by political assassinations (Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy) and nearly at war with itself over civil rights and the conflict in Vietnam. In his first term, Nixon had opened up ties to China and fostered détente with Russia and was a strong favorite for re-election in 1972. But this was the same man who lost by a hair to John Kennedy in the 1960 election, and then was humiliated in a gubernatorial election in California two years later, ending a press conference by telling reporters that “wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon never forgot where he came from, resented elites and always felt insecure about his political standing and his political enemies.
Like scenes from a movie
The final acts of the drama unfold in memory as if scenes from a film. The Supreme Court rules that Nixon must turn over the White House tapes to the special prosecutor. Once Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up becomes clear, several Republicans turn on the president and join Democrats in beginning the impeachment process in the House of Representatives. Senator Barry Goldwater leads a group of senior Republican lawmakers to the White House to deliver the news that Nixon’s position was politically untenable, leaving it to him to finally reach the conclusion that the fight was over and he must resign.
Vice President Gerald Ford was never elected president, but he too played a key role in the drama with his pitch-perfect speech in the wake of Nixon’s departure.
“Our long national nightmare is over”, Ford said following his swearing-in as president. “Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
Simple, eloquent and exactly what the country the needed to hear at a time of great political stress and uncertainty.
Ford, of course, paid a dear price for pardoning Nixon, narrowly losing the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. But Ford will be forever remembered as one of the heroes of Watergate, along with reporters Woodward and Bernstein and FBI official Mark Felt, unmasked years later as Woodward’s key source known as “Deep Throat.”
I remember from my college years during Watergate there was a surge of interest in journalism, especially the investigative kind practiced by Woodward and Bernstein. Newspapers and television stations rushed to set up investigative or “I-Teams” determined to root out official corruption and serve the public interest.
Unfortunately, Watergate also spawned a more cynical national consciousness about all things government. Some political analysts also believe the scandal was a major factor in the polarization of the two political parties that has grown worse over the decades.
Watergate also led to sweeping reforms in campaign finance laws, though some of that has been undone by recent Supreme Court rulings.
But at its core, Watergate is still seen by most as a victory for the democratic process and the rule of law and a testament to the power of a free press. Those of us who lived through it will never forget the tension and drama of a political scandal that played out on television over a two year period and ultimately changed the course of American history.