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- What were the three reasons that Nixon gave for refusing to turn over the White House tapes?
- What do these reasons illustrate about Nixons understanding of the division of power within the federal government?
- How did Nixons argument illustrate his ideas about the power of the presidency? (Links to an external site.)
- Whatdid Chief Justice Burger say about the origins of executive privilege?How does this origin justify his decision about Nixon releasing thetapes? (Links to an external site.)
- Did United States v. Nixon expand the power of the presidency? (Links to an external site.)
- Why did Nixon resign?
Watergate Beyond Nixon (Links to an external site.)
What was Watergate? (Links to an external site.)
Watergate and the Constitution (Links to an external site.)
Stage 1: The Watergate Break-In
In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 17, 1972, Frank Willsdiscovered a piece of tape over a basement-door lock in the Watergateapartment and office complex in Washington, D.C. Wills, a night watchmanat the complex, removed the tape and left to get a cup of coffee. Whenhe returned less than an hour later, he found the same lock had beenre-taped, so he called police.
Plainclothes officers responded to the call, and they soon confrontedfive burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee onthe sixth floor of the building. The burglars wore business suits andthin rubber gloves, and they carried cameras, film, a walkie-talkie,lock, picks, electronic surveillance equipment, and stacks ofhundred-dollar bills. Although they offered false identifications atfirst, it was soon discovered that the worked for the Committee toRe-Elect the President, popularly known as CREEP. They were in theWatergate complex to install electronic bugging equipment in telephonesthat would have transmitted Democratic campaign strategy back to CREEP.
Most newspapers downplayed or ignored the initial story of thebreak-in, but the Washington Post ran a story on the front page of itsSunday edition. The Posts story was written byBob Woodward, who with his colleague Carl Bernstein, soon began in-depthinvestigations of the curious circumstances surrounding the Watergateburglary.
In response to the story, John Mitchell, President Nixons campaignmanager, denied that the burglary was part of a spying operation by thepresidents men. Ronald Ziegler, the presidents press secretary, said,I am not going to comment on a third-rate alleged burglary attempt.And, within days of the break-in, President Nixon himself denied theWhite House had been involved.
Stage 2: Investigations Begin
In the early days following the Watergate break-in, hardly anyone inthe country suspected that there was a direct link between the burglaryand the White House. But details of the brewing scandal began to emergein the pages of the Washington Post, shortly before and for a long timeafter, the 1972 election. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were two youngreporters at the Post who pursued the story. In the process, theylogged thousands of investigative hours and followed hundreds of leads,including anonymous sources. The two reporters began to slowly linkNixons advisers, and eventually Nixon himself, to a cover-up of theWhite Houses involvement in the burglary.
Soon, other groups also began to pursue more information aboutWatergate. A number of newspapers and magazines aggressively covered thestory, and a grand jury convened to investigate the ramifications ofthe break-in. After the initial grand jury investigations in September1972, only two White House aides, Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and thefive burglars James McCord, CREEPs director of security; and fourCubans who had been recruited for the job were indicted (charged with acrime). Both Liddy and Hunt had initially avoided arrest, but laterpleaded guilty to involvement in the burglary.
The many investigations into the Watergate scandal ultimatelyrevealed that it was about more than just a burglary. Woodward andBernstein and others obtained evidence that White House officials wereresponsible for a series of efforts to ensure Nixon was reelected. Theyplanned to discredit and sabotage several Democratic presidentialcontenders, and pledged to do whatever was necessary to stopgovernment leaks to the press. They also extorted (illegally used theirofficial position to obtain) millions of dollars in campaigncontributions from corporations seeking government favors, and eventried to get the Internal Revenue Service to, in Nixons words,pressure our enemies. As news stories increasingly connected toppresidential officials with such sordid activities, the White Houseissued stronger denials and put pressure on the Washington Post andothers to back off.
Stage 3: Congressional Hearings
In March 1973, the grand jury investigating the burglary convictedLiddy, Hunt, and the five burglars and sentenced them to 20, 35, and 40years in prison, respectively. Soon thereafter, L. Patrick Gray, theacting director of the FBI, resigned after admitting he had destroyedWatergate evidence. In May 1973, North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, chairof the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities, convenedhearings on Watergate. The hearings were televised across the nation andwere watched with great fascination by large numbers of Americans.Former White House counsel John Dean, fired in April by Nixon, testifiedbefore the committee in June. He revealed that former Attorney GeneralJohn Mitchell who became Nixons 1972 presidential campaign manager had ordered the Watergate break-in and that the White House was coveringup its involvement. Dean also testified that the president hadauthorized payments of hush money to the burglars to keep them quiet, acharge vehemently denied by Nixons aides. On July 16, 1973, thestartling testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield testifiedthat Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House toautomatically record all conversations something only a handful ofpeople had known about. Now, the hearings key questions what did thepresident know, and when did he know it could be answered by listeningto the tapes.
Special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been appointed toinvestigate the Watergate break-in, immediately subpoenaed (summoned tocourt) eight tapes from the White House to confirm Deans testimony.Nixon refused to give them up, claiming they were vital to nationalsecurity. Nixon then offered to provide a summary of the tapes to Cox.Cox said that wasnt good enough, and so Nixon had him fired in October1973. Coxs dismissal prompted an outpouring of protest, which included350,000 angry telegrams sent to Congress and the White House. Nixonresponded to the unexpected protests by appointing another specialprosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and then turning over the subpoenaed tapes.By this time, many of Nixons top aides had been indicted for crimesrelated to Watergate.
Stage 4: The Secret Tapes
When President Nixon finally turned over the secret tapes to JudgeSirica, some of the conversations requested by the special prosecutorwere missing. One tape had a mysterious gap of 18 ó minutes, whichexperts said resulted from five separate erasures. Nixons aides deniedthat any intentional erasures had occurred and blamed the 18 ó – minutegap on an accidental erasure by Nixons secretary, Rose Mary Woods.Woods told Judge Sirica she had accidently erased the tape while she wastranscribing it, but her description was rather implausible andaccounted for only 5 minutes of erasure, leaving 13 ó minutes of missingtape unaccounted for. Americans increasingly believed the missingconversations were part of a larger White House effort to hide damningevidence.
Seven top White House officials including Mitchell and Colson were indicted in March 1974 by a grand jury for their role in theWatergate cover-up. Though Nixon was not indicted with his top aides,special prosecutor Leon Jaworski gave Sirica a secret report and bulgingbriefcase of evidence against the president and asked him to send it tothe House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeachmentcharges against the president.
Then, Jaworksi requested 42 more tapes from Nixon. Instead ofreleasing the tapes themselves, at the end of April Nixon releasedtranscripts of the tapes prepared by White House aides, who had editedout all irrelevant material. Their release caused a sensation: theGovernment Printing Office sold 800 copies in three hours on May 1,1974, and paperback books rushed into print sold millions of copies. Thetranscripts were somewhat sanitized for public consumption; wherevervulgarities existed on the tape, the aides wrote, expletive deleted onthe transcripts. The transcripts revealed an overwhelming desire amongNixon and his aides to punish political opponents, and to thwart theWatergate investigation. Now, even Nixons most steadfast supportersbegan to suggest that he needed to step down. Two months later, Jaworskirequested 64 more tapes as evidence in the cases against the indictedWhite House officials. Nixon refused to comply, but the Supreme Courtvoted 8-0 in July 1974 that he had to turn over the tapes.
Stage 5: Nixon Resigns
After the Supreme Court ruled in late July 1974 that Nixon must turnover the remaining tapes, the House Judiciary Committee adopted threearticles of impeachment against the president. The charged him withmisusing presidential power to violate the constitutional rights of U.S.citizens, obstruction of justice, and defying Judiciary Committeesubpoenas.
In early August 1974, Nixon provided transcripts of the eightsubpoenaed tapes. The tapes contained the smoking gun theirrefutable evidence that Nixon had knowingly violated the law and thathe had known about and had participated in the cover-up of the Watergatebreak-in from almost the very beginning something he had steadfastlydenied.
Until the tapes were forced out, the idea of such dealings andconversations in the White House seemed beyond belief. The tapes alsorevealed that the president and his advisors were petty and mean,constantly using vulgar and offensive expletives in their conversations.Republican Senate leaders called the tapes, a shabby, disgusting,immoral performance.
The backlash to the last set of tapes was overwhelming. CongressionalRepublicans members of Nixons own party- concluded that Nixon wasguilty and was a liability they could no longer afford. They told thepresident that his impeachment by the House of Representatives and hisremoval from office by the Senate were both foregone conclusions, andthat he should resign. Rather than face the near certainty of beingforced from office, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. In his farewelladdress, he admitted making some judgments that were wrong, but heinsisted that he had always acted in what I believed at the time to bethe best interests of the nation. Then he climbed the stairs of thepresidential helicopter, turned and gave one last victory salute to hisstaff, and flew off to political exile in California.