It was a little after two o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 17 June 1972. Five men dressed in dark business suits and wearing rubber surgical gloves, made their way quietly through the maze of blackened offices and corridors, their vast array of hi-tech equipment in tow. Despite their obvious professionalism and knowledge of the layout, they could not have foreseen that an alert security guard would decide to make his rounds of the complex at that moment.
Realizing there had been a break in the guard called the Washington Police Department which sent a quick squad car to the scene. The five men, found in one of the offices, were arrested and held in custody. Six hours later, the phone rang in reporter Bob Woodward’s apartment. The young former naval officer picked up the phone to hear the editor from the Washington post order him to go down to the courthouse. Woodward wasn’t impressed at first with his Saturday assignment. Nevertheless his interest peaked when he found out that the burglary had occurred at the Democrat national committee headquarters.
And so began the most explosive story in American political history- a scandal that would climax with the fall of President Richard Milhouse Nixon. After its course had run, the very name Watergate would be synonymous with immorality and officially sanctioned crimes.
Nixon’s scandalous behavior did not begin with Watergate. That was merely the culmination of a political life built in often shady conduct. Curiously, the man who later wanted to hire union thugs to deal with anti-Vietnam activists began life as a Quaker with non-violent ideals. The second of five brothers, he was born on 9 January 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, where his father grew lemons. His parents were ordinary working people. Although a shy, introverted youth, Nixon was nevertheless a brilliant student. While he did well at all subjects, he preferred history and music. In effort to overcome his shyness, he took public speaking and became the leading member of college debating clubs. While at the Whittier College, a Quaker institution, he received scholarship to the prestigious Duke University. Three years later he emerged with his law degree, third in class, and joined a law firm back in California. One of his past time activities was acting in a voluntary theatre group, and it was there that he met Pat Ryan a typing teacher who would later become his wife.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Nixon decided to do his part in the American war effort. So he moved to Washington, where he did legal work for the government. Later, despite his Quaker background, he was given a Navy commission as a lieutenant. He ended the war a lieutenant commander. In 1946, on the urging of a banker friend, he decided to enter politics, running as a republican in California’s congressional district. Nixon won the elections easily. In his second term in Congress he was appointed to the controversial House of Un-American Activities Committee. There he acquired the nickname pit bull of Congress, for his never-ending “biting” of the American communists. His reputation as a communist hunter helped carry him to victory in the 1950 Senate elections. He was 37 at that time but still an old fish in the waters of Washington’s dealing machinations. Two years after his term as the youngest republican senator, he was selected to be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice-president.
After a couple of months later, he almost had to quit political life for good. A New York newspaper accused him of using 10 000 dollars from the campaign funds for his personal expenses. The outcry shook the Republican Party and Eisenhower told Nixon he would have to prove he was “as clean as a hound’s tooth”, or he would have to face political exile. On 23 September, the young senator appeared on national television, his wife at his side, to explain the alleged misconduct. His defense became known as the ‘Checkers Speech’. Nixon explained that the funds had been entirely used for the political campaign purposes, and that he would never allow anything immoral or illegal to threat his career. He ended his speech with a line he would paraphrase 20 years later: “I don’t think I ought to quit, because I’m not a quitter.” The American people believed in his innocence and he returned to doing what he did best-attacking his democrat opponents. He claimed that Democratic nominee for President, Adlai Stevenson, had given support to Alger Hiss. Hiss was a former state department official whom Nixon had convicted as a communist several years earlier. This strategy worked, as the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won a landslide victory.
With the retirement of Eisenhower, Nixon decided to aim at the topmost places in politics, the US presidency. His first attempt didn’t bring him success. In 1996, he lost to the charismatic J.F.Kennedy. This and the defeat in the California governorship elections eleven years later made him retreat from political life. He stayed retired for about 6 years. Then, when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democratic Party presidential nominee, the electoral race became the most open in history. This was enough for the ambitious Nixon and he managed to win the nomination for the republicans. He won the presidency only with a half percent margin of victory.
After the 1972 break-in and detention of the five burglars a massive cover-up operation began inside the white house. Thanks to the efforts of reporters like Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein, the world would eventually learn the truth. The foreshadowing of the Watergate started when the attorney general claimed that presidential powers permitted the use of wiretapping without the permission of courts. Nixon’s character is revealed in a series of tapes released after his resignation. In one of them, he thinks aloud about using mafia mobsters to break up anti-war demonstrations. The president was so paranoid about plots against him that he set up a secret investigations unit known as the plumbers. One of their first tasks was to draw up a priority list of twenty of the president’s political enemies. At the top was Senator Edward Kennedy. The unit also discussed the possible killing of crusading newspaper columnist Jack Anderson and the sabotage of Democratic rallies.
By the time the full extent of the Watergate scandal became known, the Watergate had long since meant more than an office break-in. As the investigation neared its dramatic conclusion in 1974, the affair had brought down two attorney generals. As if that were not enough, it was eventually discovered that Nixon had been telling bare-face lies to the American people when he reassured them that he had no knowledge of the break-in. But the records and tapes indicated otherwise, and moves were mounting to have him impeached. In fact, the justice committee of the House of Representatives had already recommended impeachment. It stated that Richard Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President; such conduct warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office. Despite these strong words, Nixon still refused to yield his office, telling the nation: “I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job I was elected to do by the American people. However, the Watergate scandal was then rolling at full speed. White house aide Alexander Butterfield disclosed that since 1970 Nixon had secretly recorded all conversations and phone calls in his office. Congress demanded that the tapes be handed over. But Nixon refused to yield the tapes, claiming executive privilege. Eventually realizing he head no choice, Nixon offered to hand over summary transcripts of the tapes. Archibald Cox has been appointed to co-ordinate the Watergate probes. He was soon fired by the president’s hand-picked attorney general. It was clean to everyone however, that Nixon was fighting a losing battle. The tapes would have eventually revealed him as a liar.
In addition, irregularities were found in Nixon’s tax returns. It was also disclosed that he had used about ten million dollars to improve his homes in Florida and California. He has become a virtual prisoner in the White House. Members of the plumbers team were all found guilty of conspiracy, and twelve days later, the supreme court ruled unanimously, that Nixon had no choice but to turn over sixty-four missing tapes with his conversations and telephone calls.
The end came finally, on 9 August. Knowing that he was now certain to be impeached by the Congress, Nixon resigned the presidency in an emotional farewell address. Then he retreated to his home in California- a bitter, broken man. Yet, thanks to the best healer-time, Nixon is today considered by many as a first-rate world statesman. In effect, his renaissance began less than a month after his exit from Washington, when his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him of all criminal doings while he was in office. In the years since, Nixon has tried to play down the horrors of Watergate. He prefers to say that he should have acted more quickly to defuse the situation. He recalled: “Looking back on what is still in my mind a complex and confusing mass of events, decisions, pressures, and personalities, one thing I can see clearly now is that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate. (…) I know that many fair-minded people believe that my motivation and actions in the Watergate affaire were intentionally self-serving and illegal. I know I understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments have contributed to that belief.” Nixon, who was revealed as both liar and cheat for the whole world to see, still cannot bring himself to admit that it was he who was to blame.