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Watergate scandal

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Watergate was an American political scandal and constitutional crisis of the 1970s which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

On June 17, 1972 a group of five men were arrested while attempting to break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building, Washington, D.C.. The men were Bernard Baker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord, Jr and Frank Sturgis. McCord, being connected with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), caused some speculation linking the crime with the White House, leading Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler[?] to dismiss it as a "third-rate burglary". At his arraignment McCord identified himself as CIA, to the intense interest of two reporters from the Washington Post newspaper present at the trial - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein[?]. The reporters began a relentless chase-down of every fact relating to the arrested men.

The president, however, asked the CIA to slow the FBI's investigation of the crime, by claiming that "National Security" would be put at risk. In fact, the crime, and numerous other "dirty tricks", had been planned in the White House by CREEP head John Mitchell, the Attorney General, probably with the President's knowledge. A special investigation unit had been set up in June 1971 by the White House - a group of 'plumbers' under the direction of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt[?] investigated leaks and ran various operations against the Democrats. The Watergate break-in was a second visit to replace an earlier installed bug that was faulty.

On January 8, 1973, the original burglars along with Liddy and Hunt went to trial. All except McCord and Liddy pleaded guilty, but they were all found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. The accused had been paid to plead guilty but say nothing, and this angered the trial judge John Sirica (known as 'Maximum John' because of his harsh sentencing). Sirica handed down thirty-year sentences but indicated he would reconsider if the group was more cooperative, McCord agreed to do so and implicated CREEP and admitted to perjury. So instead of ending with the trial, the investigations grew broader than ever, a Senate Committee was set up to examine Watergate and started to subpoena White House staff.

On April 30, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignations of two of his most powerful aides, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff) and John Ehrlichman[?] (Domestic affairs advisor), both of whom would soon be indicted and ultimately go to prison. He also fired the White House counsel, John Dean, who had just testified before the Senate and would go on to became the key witness against Nixon himself. On the same day, Nixon named a new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson[?], and gave him authority to designate a special counsel for the growing Watergate inquiry, who would be independent of the regular Justice Department hierarchy to preserve his independence. On May 18, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position. The televised hearings began in the United States Senate the day before.

Seven Nixon aides were indicted for their role in the Watergate scandal and charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice on March 1, 1974.

The Watergate Tapes

The Senate hearings held by the Senate Watergate Committee[?], in which Dean was the star witness and many other former key administration officials gave damaging testimony, were broadcast through most of the summer, causing devastating political damage to Nixon. The Senate investigators also discovered a crucial fact on July 16: Alexander Butterfield revealed that a taping system in the White House automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office - tape recordings that could prove whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth about key meetings. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by both the Cox and the Senate. On January 4, 1974 Nixon refused to hand over the materials subpoenaed by the Senate.

Nixon attempted to avoid releasing the tapes under executive privilege[?], and tried to order Cox to drop his subpoena. Cox refused, and was ultimately fired on October 20, 1973 - the so-called Saturday Night Massacre[?] when Nixon fired Richardson and then his deputy in a search for an Attorney General willing to fire Cox. This search ended with Robert Bork, and the new Attorney-General fired Cox.

While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he did agree to release edited transcripts of a large number. These largely confirmed Dean's account, and caused further embarrassment when a crucial portion of one tape, which had never been out of White House custody, was found to have been erased.

Impeachment Articles

In 1974, the House of Representatives began formal investigations into the possible impeachment of the President. The first article was passed on a vote of 28 yes and 10 no on July 27, 1974, a few days after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Nixon's claim of executive privilege in the tapes case. Three articles were ultimately passed, focusing on a charge of obstructing justice in the investigation of the original burglary, as well as related investigations in illegal use of campaign funds.

In August, a previously unknown tape was released for June 23, 1972, recorded only a few days after the break-in, in which Nixon and Haldeman formulated the plan to block investigations by raising fictional national security claims. The tape was referred to as a "smoking gun". With this last piece of evidence, Nixon's few remaining supporters deserted him. The 10 congressmen who had voted against the Articles of Impeachment in Committee announced that they would now all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House. Nixon's support in the Senate was now equally weak.

After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to convict him, Nixon decided to resign, which he did on August 9, 1974. Ultimately, Nixon was never actually impeached or convicted, since his resignation voided the issue. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who within a few weeks issued a pardon for Nixon.

The effects of the Watergate scandal did not by any means end with the resignation of President Nixon. Indirectly, Watergate was the cause of new laws leading to extensive changes in campaign financing. It was a major factor in the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as laws requiring new financial disclosures by key government officials. While not legally required, other types of personal disclosure, such as releasing recent income tax forms, became expected. Knowing he was comfortably ahead in the 1972 election, Nixon refused to debate his opponent, George McGovern. No major candidate for the presidency since has been able to avoid debates. Previous Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had recorded many of their conversations but after Watergate this practice became virtually non-existent.

Watergate led to a new era in which the mass media became far more aggressive in reporting on the activities of politicians. For instance, when Wilbur Mills[?], a powerful congressman, was in a drunken driving accident a few months after Nixon resigned, the incident, similar to others which the press had previously never mentioned, was reported, and Mills soon had to resign. In addition to reporters becoming more aggressive in revealing the personal conduct of key politicians, they also became far more cynical in reporting on political issues. A new generation of reporters, hoping to become the next Woodward and Bernstein, embraced investigative reporting and sought to uncover new scandals in the increasing amounts of financial information being released about politicians and their campaigns.



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