Watergate Scandal

The Watergate Scandal was a major political scandal in the US. Originally an investigation into a break-in at an apartment and office complex, the story and cover-up discovered by journalists and the FBI ended up bringing down President Richard Nixon. He is the only President to date who has resigned.

1972 and a Lopsided Election

1972 was a Presidential election year in America, with the vote scheduled for November 7th. President Richard Nixon decided he would run again for the Republican Party. Things were not so easy for the opposing Democrats, whose favourite Teddy Kennedy (President John F. Kennedy’s brother) decided he wouldn’t stand. This left the race wide open and, in a surprise result, George McGovern – who had started the campaign in 5th place – ended up winning the Democrat nomination. Despite problems with the Vietnam War, President Nixon was a red-hot favourite to win against the outsider.

A Seemingly Unrelated Break-in

The Watergate Complex, where the break-in occurred
The Watergate Complex, where the break-in occurred

At this time the Democratic Party had their National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington D.C.. Just after midnight on June 17th a security guard at the complex noticed something unusual: tape had been placed over the latches on the door, allowing them to close but not lock. He removed the tape but, upon returning an hour later, found the tape had been replaced. He called the police who entered the building and found 5 people burgling the Democrats office.

Initially this looked like the Democrats’ disastrous election was getting worse. However, within hours the FBI had suspicions something bigger was happening. They had found two of the burglars carrying address books, both of which listed the name E. Howard Hunt. Hunt was a former CIA officer.On June 19th the FBI announced that one of the burglars was a security aide for the Republic Party.

Despite this, the break-in did nothing to help the Democrats’ cause – indeed, they were embarking on their own scandal. On July 13th they announced Thomas Eagleton as their Vice President candidate, only for it to be quickly found that Eagleton had suffered depression and undergone electroshock therapy in the 1960s. Eagleton withdrew after only 18 days. Obvious that they had not bothered to check their own candidate, the mess the Democrats were in was far bigger news than the burglary, which was still being investigated.

The Investigation Expands

The Watergate burglars and lawyers
The Watergate burglars and lawyers

The connection between the Watergate break in and the Republican Party grew stronger when, on August 1st, the FBI found $25 000 planned for Nixon’s re-election in the bank account of one of the burglars. This linked the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (Nixon’s official campaign) to the crime, and made it impossible for the Republicans to say the security aide was working alone.

By October 10th the FBI had found links between all five burglars and the Nixon re-election bid, plus evidence that the US Attorney General had a fund for intelligence-gathering on the Democrats. Nixon and the White House, however, denied any link to the break in.

Although the Republicans were slowly getting tied to the break in, it was too little and too late to affect the presidential election. With the Democrats still looking incompetent, Nixon won re-election in a landslide, taking 49 states (only Massachusetts and the District of Colombia didn’t vote Nixon) and winning the electoral vote 520 vs 17.

The Media Begins to Uncover a Conspiracy

Journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward helped bring down a President
Journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward helped bring down a President

The FBI was investigating the Watergate incident, but it was the media – notably the Washington Post and the New York Times newspapers – that began to get some of the most important information. The Washington Post’s reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in particular, were at the heart of this, helped by an anonymous source called ‘Deep Throat’. Deep Throat passed the reporters information that linked the burglary and a cover-up to the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House.

As Woodward and Bernstein began investigating and publishing the information they were getting, the White House said the reporters were on a witch-hunt. This argument was accepted by much of the public who had a low opinion of the press. However, the reporters’ stories did not escape the FBI’s attention, who followed the leads and found most to be entirely correct. ‘Deep Throat’ was clearly a reliable source who had access to key information.

The Watergate Tapes

With pressure from the newspapers and FBI growing, February 7th 1973 saw the senate voted 77-0 to allow a senate team to investigate the possibility of a connection between Republican officials and the break in. By March, that investigation had reached as high as Presidential Counsel John Dean. The White House continued to deny knowledge of any plans to break in, but the burglars themselves were beginning to turn, claiming the government was committing perjury.

As evidence and voices of those involved grew, an effort was made to distance the Presidency from the affair. First, Dean and a few other high level officials decided to take the blame. Then, on April 30th, Nixon began to ‘clean house’, removing senior aides who were in danger of prosecution. The hope was that with Dean in custody, and the suspected aides no longer working for him, there would be no method for the investigation to get any higher. It was an idea that was quickly undone.

On July 13th White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was in a preliminary hearing when he admitted that the White House recorded conversations in its offices. Realising the importance of this information, Butterfield was quickly requested to formally testify in the investigation. On July 16th, on live TV, Butterfield admitted to the investigative committee that the White House recorded conversations. The Watergate investigation was now circling around the President.

‘I’m not a crook’

The public started to turn against Nixon and the suspicion of a cover-up
The public started to turn against Nixon, angered by the suspicion of a cover-up

After Butterfield’s testimony, the investigation asked the White House for the tapes. Nixon refused, claiming Presidential priveleges. New Attorney General Archibald Cox insisted, and Nixon began to seek people who could remove Cox from the investigation. This move was met with a negative response as no politicians wanted to be seen as Nixon’s henchman, and the public saw this is a clear admission he had something to hide. On November 17th 1973 Nixon went on TV and famously said ‘I’m not a crook’. However, the suspicion – and the soon the evidence – would say otherwise.

Nixon under investigation

The Watergate investigation began to link back to Nixon
The Watergate investigation began to link back to Nixon

The investigation went into a time of evidence collecting before, on March 1st 1974, seven high-level officials were prosecuted. President Nixon was secretly listed as a co-conspirator. Over the following month other officials were prosecuted.

It was becoming impossible for the White House to not release the tapes, but Nixon’s circle had a choice: to release the full recordings, or edited versions. On April 29th 1974 they decided to release edited versions, only for the US Supreme Court to demand, in July, that the full tapes be released.

When the White House released the tapes, the recordings revealed Nixon had been involved in a cover-up, with audio of him telling John Dean to pay blackmail money. However, there was something wrong with the evidence: 18.5 minutes of recordings were missing. When questioned, Nixon’s personal secretary said she had done this by accident, but analysis found the deletion had occurred on 5 different occasions.

Although it was not yet known what was on the missing recordings, the discussion with Dean was enough to convince Congress to impeach the President. This they did in the first half of 1974.

The ‘Smoking Gun’ Tape and the End of Nixon

On August 5th 1974 a final tape was released, and this sunk the President. Recorded days after the break-in, the recording had Nixon clearly discussing blocking the investigation by asking the CIA to call the FBI and create false claims of national security. This was more serious than asking Dean to pay blackmail money; this was evidence of deliberately interfering with an investigation and perverting the course of justice.

On August 8th Nixon resigned. Vice-President Gerald Ford took over and immediately pardoned Nixon, on September 8th 1974, meaning Nixon would not spend time in jail. His name and presidency, however, was tarnished. In an election that the Republicans were guaranteed to win, Nixon’s White House had unnecessarily destroyed itself.


The Watergate investigation initially had an effect on Nixon’s health, and he spent the last part of 1974 ill, requiring one surgery and then rest in California. He was also disbarred from the legal profession, removing his pre-political profession, and quickly found most people in politics didn’t want to meet him. Nonetheless, he wanted to quickly return to public life, not least to rebuild his reputation and ease the financial strain his legal fees had caused. He duly began writing his memoirs, and also agreed to a series of television interviews with British journalist David Frost in 1977, covering his Presidency, including Watergate. For the interviews Nixon was paid $600 000. Around 50 million people watched the shows, making them the most watched political interviews in television history.

The rest of Nixon’s life was spent in mixing politics with writing. He made occasional political appearances outside America, including meeting world leaders such as Deng Xiaoping in China (where Nixon had famously visited in the early 1970s), and became a reasonably successful writer. He died in 1994.

Watergate turned reporters Woodward and Bernstein into household names. Their reporting won the Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and both went on to successful careers. Their work on Watergate was turned into the Oscar-winning movie ‘All the President’s Men’, released in 1976.

Although some suspected the identity of informant ‘Deep Throat’, it was confirmed in 2005. It was William Mark Felt Sr., an Associate Director of the FBI. Felt’s position meant he received all Watergate investigation information and saw the pressure and corruption in positions above him, including the destroying of evidence by the FBI Director, L. Patrick Gray.

Since Watergate the suffix ‘…gate’ has been given to many political scandal or cover-up.