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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Three: Discuss the events surrounding the Watergate break-in and cover-up as an example of realistic idealism.

In order to understand Watergate background material leading to the break-in must be discussed . After his 1968 presidential victory, Nixon assembled a powerful White House staff in the hopes of accomplishing his higher goals. The events surrounding the Vietnam War caused him to isolate himself from Congress, the press, and even his own cabinet


Nixon believed he was surrounded by enemies who had a lack of loyalty to him and the country. He authorized wiretaps and covert surveillance .to plug news leaks to tJie pres,s. s waS felt to be necessary in order to preserve secrecy in his administration's planning and implementing their foreign and domestic policies.


Nixon feared his policies would be undermined by his political adversaries before they could be implemented or even tested. Even President Carter stated leaks to the press were one of the more serious problems he faced, as the following quote demonstrates:


"During the early days of consideration when a matter was not likely to have been studied thoroughly within the Oval Office, I was always careful to avoid making any public statement. Sooner or later, though, I would - ; see news reports beginning, "


Carter is considering ..." or, "The President believes ..." Many times I would not be at all familiar with the question, much less the possible answer. Often the reporter would make no attempt to verify the story by asking anyone in authority. When told that the source was mistaken, the reporter was likely to respond with another headline, "Administration Confused About..." or "Carter Reverses Policy on..."


"We never did find an effective way to deal with the situation. It was bothersome, but when I thought back over the experiences of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, my problems with leaks didn't seem so serious after all."


In many ways the Vietnam War was the catalyst that started Nixon's demise. When Nixon's goal of idealistic realism (a democratic Vietnam) was threatened he resorted to the politics of realistic idealism. Several

months after assuming office in 1969, the New York Times broke the story that Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia .


In retaliation (politics of realistic idealism), the White House arranged for the FBI to illegally wiretap , without judicial warrants, several low-level staff members on the National Security Council, as well as five news people , to investigate the source of the leaks. The source was never found.


It should be noted that, at the time, this was only the latest of many similar government activities. Successive Presidents for more than one-quarter of a century had authourized electronic surveillance, in varying degrees, in-internal security)r matters without prior judicial

approval. *Kinoy US Supreme Court Reports 32 Ed 2d


In 1970 the politics of realistic idealism continued when White House aide Tom Huston, a former army intelligence officer, drew up an extensive plan for secret domestic counter-intelligence--such as opening mail, tapping phones, and arranging break-ins--that would involve the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department.

Nixon approved the scheme, only to have it blocked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who refused to cooperate with other government agencies in activities he interpreted as being exclusively within the scope of the FBI.


It was not that Hoover was opJ?osed to such ractices, for he had used them all with the EBI in his,attempts to discredit the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. in the l 960's.


Elsewhere in the White House, aides John Dean and Charles Colson were busy preparing an enemies list. The list contained the names of several hundred prominent Americans , ranging from movie stars like Jane Fonda and Paul Newman to journalists, and educators, such as columnist James Reston and Kingman Brewster president of: Yale University.

Henry Kissinger best summarized all these activities when he jokingly said, "The illegal we do

immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer."


The Watergate building in Washington, D. C., was the headquarters for the Democratic Party in 1972. The break-in occurred on June 17, 1972.


Due to his experience with the Kennedy election in 1960, the domestic dissent during his first administration, and his own natural paranoia caused by his many political battles and scares, Nixon went to great lengths to guarantee his re-election in 1972. A Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) was formed, headed by Attorney General John Mitchell.

Specialists in dirty tricks, notably Donald Segretti, harassed Democratic contenders, while G. Gordon Liddy, of the White House "plumbers," developed an elaborate plan to spy on the opposition. Liddy's scheme included bugging the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.


In the early morning hours of June 17, James McCord and four other men working under the direction of Hunt and Liddy were caught by police during a break-in at Watergate.

The continuing abuse of power and illegal acts had become such common practice, not only by the Nixon administration, but by the FBI and previous administrations, it finally culminated in an act which was to bring down the entire Nixon administration.


As discussed, Watergate started on June 17, 1972, when, as the Founding Fathers had feared, a group of men whose loyalty to their Party and a figurehead became more important than their loyalty to the principles on which this government Was founded. The events "s' surrounding the Watergate break-in are as follows

The purpose of the break-in, according to Jeb Magruder (the Nixon aide who directed the event), was to find out if the Democrats knew about the illegal funds collected and how they were spent.


Magruder stated the break-in also occurred because Nixon believed, as already mentioned, he had lost the 1960 presidential campaign to the Democrats and John Kennedy because of some of their illegal activities in the states of Illinois and Texas. Nixon's aides wanted to know what the Democrats were up to this time.


In order to down play the break-in, the Nixon administration first dismissed it as "a third rate burglary attempt." But as the story unfolded, almost entirely due to the stubborn efforts of the press, the true extent of the dishonest and illegal acts committed by the President and his associates became public knowledge. Equal to the political battles over Reconstruction after the Civil War, Watergate brought about one of the most serious confrontations among the three branches of government in our nation’s history. In the end, it brought down a president.

Once it was revealed that Nixon tried to cover up the break-in and that such information was on White House tapes, he tried to invoke executive privilege to withhold the tapes. Nixon claimed, on the grounds of executive privilege and separation of powers, that the tapes he made of all of his White House conversations need not be revealed to Congress or in the courts


When Archibald Cox, appointed as Watergate special prosecutor, demanded the release of the tapes, Nixon responded by firing Cox. When Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to remove Cox, Nixon fired him too.


But the new Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, continued to press for the tapes. Nixon tried to release only a few of the less damaging ones, but the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in June, 1974, the tapes had to be turned over to Judge Sirica.


The tapes, particularly the June 23, 1973, one, revealed Nixon tried to obstruct the government's investigation into the break-in in order to protect his administration.

Throughout 1974, calls for the President's resignation or impeachment grew louder. In July, the House Judiciary Committee, after historic debate, handed down three articles of impeachment.


One cited Nixon for covering up the Watergate break-in: obstructing justice and withholding evidence, interfering with federal agencies, and condoning the payment of hush money to the convicted Watergate burglars.


Other abuses of presidential power were the subject of a second charge by the committee: misusing the Internal Revenue Service to try to punish political enemies, establishing an illegal investigative agency ("the plumbers") for a break-in at Daniel J. Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, and the "Houston plan" to harass other war dissenters.

Seeing the erosion of support amongst even his strongest congressional backers, the President finally resigned on August 9, 1974, the first American chief executive ever to do so. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, elected with Nixon in 1968 and re-elected in 1972, did not succeed Nixon.


Agnew had come under fire from a Baltimore grand jury investigation on charges of kickbacks and tax fraud in Maryland , where he had been governor. In October, 1973, he had pleaded no contest to a charge of income tax evasion and stepped down from office.


Nixon then announced the appointment of House Minority Leader, Gerald R. Ford of Michigan, to the vice presidency. Ford succeeded Nixon, declaring minutes after being sworn in that "our long national nightmare is over."


Both the FBI and CIA were implicated ir1the Watergate cover-UJ?. Evidence unearthed at the time suggested wrongdoing by these agencies, including illegal searches by the FBI and domestic spying by the CIA. A larger implication of the controversy was whether the two powerful intelligence agencies could be better checked and balanced by other branches of the government to prevent further serious abuses of power. On many levels, government reforms came into effect to deal with the abuses of power revealed after 1972 and to. cleanse the electoral process.

Legislation was passed in 1976 which established public financing of presidential elections. This was intended to eliminate the secret slush funds and the brown paper bag handling of money in presidential politics , but most important of all, Congress set up a federal election practices act. Basically, it limited the amount of funds that could be spent by individuals and special interest groups, known as political action committees (PAC's).


State legislatures also established financial disclosure laws and tighter controls over election advertising. By the 1980's, PAC's were having a dramatic impact on the political process-in some respects directly opposite to what their authors had intended. PAC's were taking over from the political parties the historic role of structuring major

Nixon's resignation proved to be the culmination of the Watergate scandal. The entire episode revealed both the weaknesses and strengths of the American political system. Most regrettable was the abuse of presidential authority which was a reflection both of the fatal flaws in politics , the two party system the Founding Fathers spoke of, and in human nature itself.


Like such previous executive-branch scandals as the Alien and Sedition Acts, the battle over Reconstruction , and the election of 1876, Watergate involved a lust for power and a clash of egos.


The Watergate crisis brought several important issues to the attention of the American people.


The first was the delicate question of the President's power , or even that of the FBI's, to authorize electronic surveillance in internal security matters without prior judicial approval. This issue

requires sensitivity to both the Government's right to protect itself from unlawful subversion and attack and to the citizen's right to be secure in his privacy against unreasonable government intrusion.


The second issue is, to what extent does the executive branch have the power to protect itself from political and constitutional attacks from the other branches of government. And the larger question is, how does society tell if the resistance to the attacks are to protect national interest or to protect a President who abused his power in either carrying out the national interest as he saw it (the Iran-contra affair), or carrying out his own political interest (Watergate).


Watergate demonstrated the vitality of a democratic society. The press particularly Woodward and Berstein, showed how investigative reporting could unlock even the most closely guarded executive secrets. Judge Sirica proved that an independent judiciary was still the best bulwark for individual freedom.