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Forty years ago, on August 8, 1974, President Nixon announced his resignation from office. Nixon retains the dubious honor of being the first and only American President to resign from office. His resignation marked the climax of a scandal—Watergate—that tarnished the Presidency, ended his political career, changed American journalism, and eroded Americans’ confidence in their elected officials. Nixon and Watergate’s dark legacy remains and, 40 years later, still whispers lessons to politicians, journalists, and Americans.
If Americans have become immune to the shock of political scandal it is, in part, because of Watergate. What scandal could be worse than one that takes a President down? If Americans seem jaded and suspicious of politicians, it is also in part because of Watergate. The most powerful, important national leader chose the dark side of power. The worst has happened. Learn more about the scandal that enthralled the nation, altered the national consciousness, and expelled a President.
Who was Richard Nixon?—
Richard Nixon’s humble beginning gave no indication that he would eventually become the 37th President of the United States. PBS’ The Presidents: Nixon tracks Nixon’s rise and fall. Watch from 4:49 to 18:18 to learn more about Nixon’s childhood and his entrance into politics.
What was Watergate?—
Watergate occupies a unique place in the annals of American scandal; it involved the President of the United States and changed the course of history. At first glance, Watergate was a break-in. But a break-in is common and Watergate is anything but common. The extensive cover-up, and wide-spread dearth in ethics among America’s highest elected official and his appointees make it unique, astounding, mesmerizing. This is among American history’s greatest proverbial train wrecks. Learn more about the events that make up Watergate, President Nixon’s involvement, the role of journalists, and why it is still relevant.
Watergate began as a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate building. Normally, this might be reported on the crimes page and receive little attention. However, the dogged investigative reporting of the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered clandestine connections that suggested White House involvement. Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s anonymous source, confirmed their findings and provided valuable guidance. Read The Post investigates to learn how the story unfolded.
Initially, the Washington Post was the primary news agency investigating and reporting the story. However, in October, 1973, CBS evening news anchor Walter Cronkite introduced the national audience to Watergate. Watch that broadcast from the beginning to 7:03. Cronkite was considered a reliable news source; the story gained credibility and prominence.
As Bernstein and Woodward dug deeper and government investigations began, the cover-up metastasized. As Republican Congressman Tom Petri noted, “It isn’t the original scandal that gets people in the most trouble, it’s the attempted cover-up.” See a timeline of how the scandal snowballed. Watch a clip (2:03:42 to 2:12:38) from PBS’ American Presidents: Nixon to learn more about the White House cover-up.
In response to the allegations, two government investigations were launched: one by the Senate Watergate Committee and one by a special independent prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was appointed by Nixon’s Attorney General. Witnesses cooperating with those investigations revealed the existence of secret White House audio recordings. Return to the timeline and read the 1973 entries for Dean and the White House tapes.
Until then, it was a matter of ‘he said’ versus ‘he said’. Taped conversations would change that. Somebody would be proved a liar. Watch another clip (2:16:18 to the end) from American Presidents: Nixon to discover how Nixon responded to the investigators’ demands that he release the White House recordings. With the impeachment process in full swing and the Supreme Court ruling he must release the tapes, President Nixon spoke to the nation one final time.
On August 9, 1974, Lyndon Johnson took the Presidential oath and became the 38th President of the United States. In September, 1974, President Johnson pardoned Richard Nixon for all federal crimes he committed or may have committed. 49 people were convicted of a range of crimes, including the Attorney General (John Mitchell), the Chief of Staff (H.R. Haldeman), White House counsel (John Dean and John Ehrlichman) and the five burglars who broke into the DNC office.
Still In the News—
It is tempting, and perhaps easy, to relegate events from 40 years ago to a dusty corner of a little-used closet. But today’s events are built on history’s foundation, however crumbly or stable that may be. Contemporary policies, attitudes, and events are often explained by tracking their historical roots. Current events—the VA backlog, David Weber, and Edward Snowden—show that investigative reporting and whistleblowers still provide important information about and accountability for government agencies and private companies. Last week, on Tuesday, August 5, reporters at The Intercept published an article about the government’s terror watch-list that relied on leaked, classified government documents. The constitutional and ethical questions raised during Watergate—whether and to what degree journalists may and should protect their sources, whether communications between government officials are protected—are still relevant.