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Research/Publications


American Political History


Watergate


Richard NixonEarly in the morning on June 17, 1972, after being alerted by a building security guard, police arrested five men who had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. According to subsequent accounts, the burglars were there to adjust bugging equipment they had installed during a prior May break-in and to photograph documents in the Democrats' files. The participants in the burglary were soon connected to E. Howard Hunt, a former White House aide, and to G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel for the Committee for the Reelection of President Nixon. Three months later, Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury. Despite the ties to his campaign, President Nixon repeatedly denied any involvement in the incident. In subsequent testimony, Nixon campaign director and former Attorney General John Mitchell, in admitting his own authorization of the burglary at Liddy's behest and his knowledge of the later efforts to cover it up, said that he did not inform President Nixon "...so he could go on through the campaign without being involved." While the Watergate incident attracted relatively little public notice during the remainder of the 1972 campaign season, two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played key roles in pursuing the story, with their reports aided by tips form their informant, later popularly called "Deep Throat", whose identity remains a point of speculation.

President Nixon went on to win a landslide re-election victory over Democratic candidate George McGovern, with the Republican ticket gaining 520 of the 538 Electoral College votes.

The Watergate burglars first refused to talk about the reason for their burglary, but five of the break-in defendants entered guilty pleas, and E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, the security director of the Committee for the Reelection of the President who had formerly worked as an officer in the CIA and FBI, were convicted by a federal court jury for their part in the burglary conspiracy. The defendants were placed under severe pressure when federal Judge John Sirica announced in court on March 23, 1973, that the severity of sentences for the five defendants who had pled guilty would depend on their cooperation in implicating those higher up in the conspiracy. He also read in open court a letter he had received from McCcord charging that witnesses in the burglary trial had committed perjury and that the White House was involved in a cover-up of its connection to the break-in.

A special prosecutor, Harvard Law School Professor Archibald Cox, was appointed to look into Watergate and a special Senate Investigative Committee, chaired by North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, undertook its own probe. At the commencement of the hearings, the committee's ranking Republican, Howard Baker of Tennessee, focused the issue with one simple question: "What did the President know and when did he know it?" Despite denials they had anything to do with it, four top Nixon aides were forced to resign.

On July 13, Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to the President and secretary to the Cabinet, disclosed in a private interview with the Senate committee staff that the White House had a tape recording system. The committee and the special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes, but the President refused on the ground that they were covered by executive privilege, contending that a president had a right to keep confidential any White House communication, whether or not it involved sensitive diplomatic or national security matters. Archibald Cox also persisted in demanding the tapes, and the White House ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Both Richardson and his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, refused and resigned. Ruckelshaus's assistant, Robert Bork, then fired Cox, but Congress forced Nixon to name a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.

Political investigations began in February 1973 when the Senate established a Committee to investigate the Watergate scandal. The public hearings included the testimony provided by John Dean, Nixon's former White House Counsel, that he had warned the President that the scandal involved key members of the Administration.

The decision in United States v. Nixon issued July 24 by the Supreme Court ordered the White House to hand over more tapes, rejecting the Ptresident's claims of executive privilege. Released August 5, the most damaging tape, to become known as the 'smoking gun' tape, showed that on June 23, 1972, only six days after the Watergate break-in, Nixon had suggested in a conversation with his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that the Central Intelligence Agency be used to block the Federal Bureau of Investigation's work on the burglary. On July 27, 29 and 30, the Judiciary Committee approved three Articles of Impeachment for referral to the full House charging Nixon with obstruction of justice and misue of his office.

The calls for Nixon to resign increased, and many of his Republican defenders in the Congress announced either publicly or privately that they would no longer oppose impeachment. On August 7, Republican Congressional leaders, including Senator Barry Goldwater, visited the President in the White House to advise him that his conviction on the impeachment charges was inevitable.

At 9 pm on the evening of August 8, 1974, President Nixon delivered a nationally televised speech in which he announced his intention to resign . The next morning, he made his final remarks to the White House staff before sending his formal resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon resignation letter

The "Smoking Gun" conversation
President Nixon and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman met on June 23, 1972 to discuss the progress of the FBI's Watergate investigation, especially the tracing of the source of money found on the burglars. The President suggests having the CIA ask the FBI to halt their investigation of the Watergate break-in by claiming that the break-in was a national security operation.

Excerpts from transcript of meeting between President Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

HALDEMAN: okay -that's fine. Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we're back to the-in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI Director] Gray doesn't exactly know how to control them, and they have, their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they've been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources - the banker himself. And, and it goes in some directions we don't want it to go. Ah, also there have been some things, like an informant came in off the street to the FBI in Miami, who was a photographer or has a friend who is a photographer who developed some films through this guy, [Watergate burglar] Barker, and the films had pictures of Democratic National Committee letter head documents and things. So I guess, so it's things like that that are gonna, that are filtering in. [Campaign Director John] Mitchell came up with yesterday, and [White House Counsel] John Dean analyzed very carefully last night and concludes, concurs now with Mitchell's recommendation that the only way to solve this, and we're set up beautifully to do it, ah, in that and
that...the only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC...they
did a massive story on the Cuban...

PRESIDENT: That's right.

HALDEMAN: thing.

PRESIDENT: Right.

HALDEMAN: That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say,
"Stay the hell out of this...this is ah, business here we don't want you to go any further on it." That's not an unusual development,...

PRESIDENT: Um huh.

HALDEMAN: ...and, uh, that would take care of it

PRESIDENT: When you get in these people when you...get these people in, say: "Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that" ah, without going into the details...don't, don't lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say
this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, "the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don't go any further into this case", period!

PRESIDENT: What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn't want to?

HALDEMAN: Pat does want to. He doesn't know how to, and he doesn't have, he doesn't have any
basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He'll call [deputy CIA Director] Mark Felt in, and the two of them ...and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because...

PRESIDENT: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: he's ambitious...

PRESIDENT: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: Ah, he'll call him in and say, "We've got the signal from across the river to, to put the hold on this." And that will fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that's what it is. This is CIA....


Resources

Watergate >> The Washington Post

Watergate.info

Watergate Revisited >> CNN.com

Richard M. Nixon: The Watergate Tapes (Audio) >> Library, University of California at Berkeley

The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace

Educational Tools

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Constitutional Issues - Watergate and the Constitution >> National Archives and Records Administration

As It Happened: Nixon Resignation >> History Channel