Watergate: The Scandal that Defined Nixon’s Presidency

In 1972, US President Richard Nixon won re-election by a landslide…but his victory was tainted by a growing scandal where he was accused of covering up political espionage.

Jan 18, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

watergate scandal nixon presidency


During the 1972 presidential campaign, a group of men was caught breaking into the Democratic Party national committee offices at the Watergate Complex. While the Democrats lost the election in a landslide to incumbent Republican president Richard Nixon, the seeds of Nixon’s downfall had been planted. As the months passed in Nixon’s second term, the growing Watergate scandal undermined his presidency. Eventually, audio tape evidence revealed Nixon’s deep complicity in the attempted cover-up of the Watergate break-in. How did the Watergate scandal lead to the first, and so far only, presidential resignation in American history? How did the most powerful man in the country get caught breaking the law?


Setting the Stage: Richard Nixon’s Hard Losses

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President-Elect Kennedy visited Vice President Nixon at the Key Biscayne Hotel where the Nixon family was vacationing. They discussed the presidential election and the upcoming administration transition.


In 1960, Vice President Richard M. Nixon was the Republican nominee for president, hoping to succeed his boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the next chief executive. His opponent was the youthful-looking US Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA). It was a close campaign, with public support roughly evenly split between the two political powerhouses. A new technology intervened: television. The 1960 presidential debates were televised for the first time, famously giving the telegenic Kennedy an edge over Nixon, who allegedly refused advice on how to look better on TV. Although voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had done better, those who saw it on TV gave the win to Kennedy.


Kennedy won the election, though by a very slim margin. A dejected Nixon returned to California, his home state, where he ran for governor in 1962. Again, Nixon lost, angrily declaring that the media wouldn’t have “Nixon to kick around any more…this is my last press conference.”


Nixon’s distrust of the media harkened back to September 1952, when he was the young vice presidential nominee on Eisenhower’s ticket. The press revealed alleged financial improprieties by the US Senator’s team, sparking a furor. Nixon successfully outmaneuvered the accusations with his Checkers speech, stating that the only political gift he kept was the family dog, Checkers. Thus, Nixon both distrusted the media but also learned how to use it as a politician. He was hardened by his two tough losses in ‘60 and ‘62 and vowed not to lose again.

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Setting the Stage: The Chennault Affair in 1968

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Anna Chennault (right), with her husband Claire Chennault, a US Army Air Force general during World War II, was an alleged “back door” connection in South Vietnam. Source: Hawaii Public Radio


Six years later, Nixon was running for president again, having decided against his post-1962 retirement from politics. Fortunately for him, the Democratic Party and administration of President Lyndon Johnson were in disarray due to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War and the assassination of popular Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, with the Democratic Party eventually settling on his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as the nominee. The party’s choice of Humphrey, who had not entered any presidential primaries that spring, helped fuel the dramatic Chicago riots that erupted outside the convention center. Nixon’s “law-and-order” campaign message appealed to many moderate and independent voters tired of the late-1960s social and political turmoil.


However, the Democrats seemed to pull things together by early autumn. The Johnson administration was pursuing a peace deal that might end US involvement in Vietnam, giving a political edge to Humphrey. However, the talks quickly fell apart…perhaps due to the tinkering of Nixon. As a former vice president, Nixon was well connected and was accused of having a back-door diplomatic channel to the South Vietnamese government in the person of Anna Chennault. Chennault, a wealthy socialite and wife of former US Army Air Force general Claire Lee Chennault, supposedly convinced leaders in Saigon to sabotage Johnson’s peace talks. She urged them to continue the war on the grounds that if Nixon became president, he would help them win outright. Thus, the Chennault Affair allegedly revealed that Nixon was not afraid to “play dirty” when it came to politics.


Summer of ‘72: The Watergate Complex Break-In

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An aerial view of the Watergate complex, where the Democratic National Committee headquarters was burglarized on June 17, 1972. Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)


Nixon won the 1968 election and pursued re-election in 1972. His re-election bid was engineered by the Committee to Reelect the President, or CRP. Allegedly, CRP was willing to play dirty to gain an edge over Nixon’s upcoming opponent(s) in the election, perhaps leading critics of Nixon to refer to the committee with the acronym CREEP. In the pre-dawn hours of June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex in Washington DC noticed that someone had stuffed papers into the locks of doors at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Police arrived and arrested five men, who were the “Plumbers” whom the White House was using to find and shut down (information) leaks to the media.


The “Plumbers” had been created after the Pentagon Papers leak in 1971, which revealed that the White House had been lying about the conduct of the Vietnam War. Although the information revealed only covered up through 1967, prior to Nixon’s presidency, Nixon felt he needed to strike back against an alleged left-wing conspiracy. This likely led Nixon to feel justified in using the “Plumbers” to sabotage the Democrats in 1972, as anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern was unacceptable to him. Upon the arrest of the five burglars, it was discovered that one was directly employed by the White House.


The Watergate Scandal Grows

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Cover of the memoirs of the two Washington Post journalists who uncovered Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate scandal beginning days after the break-in. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


The White House denied any involvement in the Watergate break-in. However, two Washington Post journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, kept digging. The journalists had a secret source who gave them information and was known only by the code name “Deep Throat.” Deep Throat met with the journalists seven times, providing crucial information that unveiled the White House conspiracy. One such bombshell was that a check for $25,000 earmarked for Nixon’s re-election campaign was deposited into the account of one of the Watergate burglars. Despite this reported news, the public was not highly invested in the story, and the Nixon administration declared the investigation closed by the end of August.


However, over the autumn, additional information continued to tie the White House to the burglary, as well as other campaign illegalities, such as slush funds used for political intrigue. As this information quietly accrued, Nixon won re-election in November by a historic margin, winning over 60 percent of the popular vote and 49 out of 50 states. Anti-war McGovern, the Democratic nominee, only won Massachusetts and Washington DC. Two months later, the trial of the Watergate burglars began, and it was quickly believed that there were more facts to the case. On February 5, 1973, a Senate committee convened to investigate the 1972 presidential campaign.


April 1973: Nixon’s Secret Taping System Revealed

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One of the audio-taping machines used in the Nixon White House. Source: the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum


When investigating a US president, it is imperative to collect solid evidence. Even if the five Watergate burglars had been working for Nixon, could there be any proof? During the Senate investigation, a White House staffer revealed a bombshell. Alexander Butterfield, deputy assistant to the president, testified in July 1973 that he had overseen the installation of a voice-activated audio-taping system in early 1971. Butterfield was unaware that the investigating committee did not already know about the tapes. Days later, the committee subpoenaed the tapes.


President Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena, claiming executive privilege. This is the argument that, in order to operate with speed and confidence as chief executive and commander-in-chief, the president must be free from excessive oversight. On August 9, the investigating committee sued Nixon in federal court, and the case worked its way up. Eventually, Nixon’s office stated that it would only comply with an order from the US Supreme Court.


October 1973: The Saturday Night Massacre

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Archibald Cox (center), the special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation, was fired on Nixon’s orders in October 1973. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


The man demanding the tapes was Archibald Cox, a special prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General. Both the Attorney General and the special prosecutor were employees of the executive branch of government, meaning they officially worked for the president. Nixon offered to give Cox transcripts of the tapes rather than the audio tapes themselves. When this was rejected, Nixon ordered the Attorney General, Elliott Richardson, to fire Cox. Instead of doing so, Richardson resigned, followed by his deputy, William Ruckelshaus.


Robert Bork, the Solicitor General (attorney who argues in favor of the US government), was next in line and agreed to fire Cox. This incident provoked an uproar and led to calls for the impeachment of Nixon by many members of Congress. In February 1974, the House of Representatives approved the creation of an investigation committee to impeach the president. A new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, continued to demand the audio tapes from Nixon’s office. The Senate investigation closed at the end of February; the impeachment investigation was now in full swing.


July 1974: Supreme Court Rules Against Nixon

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An image depicting the US Supreme Court case United States vs. Richard Nixon (1974). Source: the Bill of Rights Institute


On March 1, 1974, a grand jury in Washington DC indicted seven Nixon administration officials as part of the Watergate investigation. In April, a federal court again subpoenaed the tapes and set a trial date for September 9. Nixon responded by releasing edited transcripts of the tapes. The next day, May 1, Nixon’s attorneys claimed executive privilege as the reason why Nixon did not have to present the audio tapes themselves. Later in the month, a writ of certiorari was sent to the US Supreme Court to decide the constitutionality behind Nixon’s claim of executive privilege.


The justices heard oral arguments on July 9 and handed down a decision on the 24th: Nixon did not have the right to executive privilege. In the case, United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court was unanimous in saying that executive privilege was not universal. The Court ordered the tapes to be turned over to a judge, who would decide their relevance to the criminal cases against Nixon’s officials. These tapes, now public, would be accessible to the impeachment investigators in the House of Representatives. Days later, the House impeachment committee approved three articles of impeachment.


August 9, 1974: Richard Nixon Resigns (to Avoid Impeachment)

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Former US President Richard Nixon boarding his helicopter to leave the White House after his resignation on August 9, 1974. Source: the University of Virginia


The audio tapes were the “smoking gun” that Nixon had actively covered up the Watergate investigation – and broken the law. He lost the support of his own political party and thus was at genuine risk of being removed from office through impeachment. Although removal from office requires a two-thirds majority vote in the US Senate, most Republican senators would likely vote to remove him due to the transparency of his guilt. Nixon had lost the support of the public and knew that trying to remain in office was futile.


On September 8, 1974, Nixon went on television and addressed the country, stating that he would resign the following day. He signed the resignation letter at 11:35 AM on August 9, becoming the first US president to resign. Via helicopter, the Nixon family left the White House for Andrews Air Force Base, from which they flew to California. The nation reeled from the unpleasant realization that the president had been deceitful. Nixon’s successor, Vice President Gerald Ford, decided one month later to pardon Nixon and spare the nation the possibility of a former president being placed on trial.


The Aftermath: Loss of Faith in the Executive

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US President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976 aided by his status as a political outsider untainted by the Watergate scandal, with then-US Senator Joe Biden. Source: Georgia Public Radio


The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation left the nation troubled, especially coming on the heels of the un-victorious end of the Vietnam War and amid an economic crisis caused by the OPEC oil embargo. Socially, economically, and politically, America was in a slump. They were distrustful of “Washington insiders” like Nixon and Ford, who had long political careers. As a result, a little-known outsider named Jimmy Carter picked up steam in the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries. Voters liked his grit, hustle, and the fact that he was a state governor and not a member of the “Washington class.”


Gerald Ford had the dubious distinction of being the first US president never chosen by voters; he had been appointed as Nixon’s second vice president after the first, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned in October 1973. Ford’s pardon of Nixon, though perhaps wise, angered many voters. Fairly or not, Ford was tied closely to the Nixon administration throughout the campaign. Carter won the election and is often credited with restoring faith in the presidency, though many felt in 1980 that he had not done the best job on economic or foreign policy. Carter lost his re-election bid to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan but is today seen as a good choice to have restored the White House after Watergate.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.