I have always wondered why scandals are named using the suffix ‘-gate’ – think ‘Plebgate’, ‘Hackgate’ or ‘Bloodgate’. It turns out that the reason stems from Watergate – a scandal that changed American politics and the public’s faith in the president forever.
In May 1972, five men connected with Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee Office in the Watergate building and attempted to tap phones and steal top-secret documents. They were guided by two men from Nixon’s White House in the building opposite by walkie-talkies. The wiretaps failed and so they returned on the 17th June when they were arrested. It was not clear that they were connected to the re-election campaign.
A spokesman for the White House, when asked about the event a few days later, said that he would not comment on ‘a third-rate burglary’. Two reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began to investigate the crime. They, on the other hand, thought that this was ‘a professional type operation’ as the burglars wore surgical gloves and carried thousands of dollars in cash. Now, they are given much credit for exposing the President’s involvement.
At first, Nixon went to great lengths to attempt to cover up the crime: he tried to persuade the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating, evidence was destroyed, staff members who refused to cooperate were fired and it was arranged that the burglars would be given hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep quiet. In August of that year, Nixon gave a speech in which he claimed that he nor his staff were at all involved with the break-in, but FBI agents discovered in October that the break-in was linked to Nixon’s re-election campaign. $25,000 for the campaign was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. However, he was re-elected as President that November taking more than 60% of the vote.
Hearings surrounding the case began in 1973. Alexander Butterfield, former appointments secretary to the President, testified that Nixon had secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office since 1971. Prosecutors were determined to get hold of the tapes as they would provide solid evidence to prove Nixon’s guilt. Archibald Cox, the assigned special prosecutor for this case, was fired by Nixon when he refused to stop demanding the tapes. Several Justice Department officials resigned in protest at this decision on the 20th October 1973. This later became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Eventually, Nixon agreed to hand over written summaries of the tapes, but the White House couldn’t explain why there was an 18 and a half minute gap in one of them.
During a speech the following month, Nixon says: ‘I’m not a crook,’ maintaining his innocence. Amid calls for impeachment, he insisted that he would stay in office, despite increasing unpopularity. He asserted that he had made mistakes but broken no laws and would not release the tapes, as they could harm some of his senior staff members. He also claimed that he had not known of the burglary or the cover-up until early 1973.
On March 1st 1974, seven of Nixon’s former aides were accused of charges related to the Watergate break-in. Nixon was called an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ by the jury as they were unsure as to whether they were able to accuse the current president.
The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over the original copies of the tapes in July 1974, despite his pleas for presidential privilege. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up and several violations of the constitution. The tapes were released on August 5th, proving without a doubt his complicity in the Watergate crimes. One conversation especially, from June 23rd 1972, showed that Nixon had played a leading role in the cover-up. Facing certain impeachment from the Senate, Nixon resigned on August 8th, becoming the first US president ever to do so.
Nixon’s resignation was only right and really came too late. This scandal led to further distrust of the government at a time when they were already divisive due to the Vietnam War. Had he admitted his crimes straight away rather than devising elaborate plans to cover them up, then the whole political system would not have been tainted with him. Greater openness and honesty was subsequently demanded of American politics by the people and this was met by several reforms.