Richard Nixon and Watergate


Watergate scandal

Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. This was no ordinary robbery: The prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and they had been caught while attempting to wiretap phones and steal secret documents. While historians are not sure whether Nixon knew about the Watergate espionage operation before it happened, he took steps to cover it up afterwards, raising “hush money” for the burglars, trying to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from investigating the crime, destroying evidence and firing uncooperative staff members. In August 1974, after his role in the Watergate conspiracy had finally come to light, the president resigned. His successor, Gerald Ford, immediately pardoned Nixon for all the crimes he “committed or may have committed” while in office. Although Nixon was never prosecuted, the Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading many Americans to question their leadership and think more critically about the presidency.


The origins of the Watergate break-in lay in the hostile politics of the 1960s. By 1972, when Republican President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was running for reelection, the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and deeply divided internally. In such a harsh political climate, a forceful presidential campaign seemed essential to the president and some of his key advisers. Their aggressive tactics included what turned out to be illegal espionage. In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.

It later came to light that Nixon was not being truthful. A few days after the break-in, for instance, he arranged to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” to the burglars. Then, he and his aides hatched a plan to instruct the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to impede the FBI’s investigation of the crime. This was a more serious crime than the break-in: It was an abuse of presidential power and a deliberate obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, seven conspirators were indicted on charges related to the Watergate affair. At the urging of Nixon’s aides, five pleaded guilty and avoided trial; the other two were convicted in January 1973.


1. A different kind of tape started off the scandals. The burglars used tape to hold open the latches on door locks at the DNC offices. A sharp-eyed security guard, Frank Wills, saw the tape and called police.

2. Who made the famous “third-rate burglary” comment? That statement was made by press secretary Ron Zeigler at a press conference in Key Biscayne, Florida two days after the break-in. He also warned that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.”

3. Bernstein and Woodward did the second story about the Watergate break-in. The first Washington Post story was filed by veteran police reporter Alfred E. Lewis on June 18, 1972. The first Bernstein and Woodward report came on June 19, 1972.

4. Other newspapers played important roles in reporting Watergate. The Post had an undeniable critical role in breaking the scandal, especially with scoops from a source called Deep Throat, but the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday had scoops, too.

5. Robert Bork was a figure in the Saturday Night Massacre. The future Supreme Court nominee acted as solicitor general and fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox on October 20, 1973, after Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson quit after refusing to fire Cox, and Richardson’s aide, William Ruckelshaus, was fired for not firing Richardson .