Watergate Hearings Began 50 Years Ago

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| By J. Robert Parks |

The Watergate affair that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency began in June 1972 with a poorly executed crime, a “third-rate burglary attempt” as the White House called it. That incident and the cover-up that followed compelled Nixon to resign two years later. There were many factors that led to that, as well as an endlessly fascinating cast of characters, with several movies’ worth of villains and heroes. One key event, however, was the public Watergate hearings, led by Senator Sam Ervin, which started 50 years ago today. Educators looking to help students understand the inner workings of politics and scandal; the interactions of the three branches of government, including checks and balances; and how a free press contributes to our society will find a rich trove of information in Gale In Context: U.S. History.

The Watergate scandal was named after the building where the break-in occurred. Five burglars had been hired by the Committee to Reelect the President (with the amazing acronym CREEP!) to break into the office of the Democratic National Committee. They were there to plant wiretaps and to take photos of documents, but they were caught by a security guard.

Initially, the burglary seemed to have nothing to do with the president himself, and he waltzed to a landslide victory over George McGovern in the presidential election that November. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had been assigned to cover the story, however, and by October 1972, they had traced the money that was paid to the burglars back to John Mitchell. Mitchell had at one time been Nixon’s attorney general and was, in the summer of 1972, the head of CREEP. As Woodward and Bernstein doggedly pursued the money trail and other clues, they were helped by a source inside the government, later revealed as FBI Associate Director Mark Felt but whom Woodward referred to as Deep Throat.

The Washington Post was largely alone in its pursuit at first, as other media outlets either did not cover the story or simply parroted the White House rebuttals. A pivotal event happened when one of the burglars, who had been convicted and sentenced in January 1973, wrote a letter to the judge, John Sirica, that some of the other burglars had perjured themselves in the trial and that they had been pressured to lie.

The U.S. Senate voted to hold hearings on the Watergate scandal in early February 1973, but the televised hearings did not begin until May 17. By then, the scandal had consumed Washington. Nixon had asked for the resignation of his senior aides, who were implicated in the cover-up, and he had appointed a new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, who then appointed a special counsel, Archibald Cox, to investigate.

Still, popular opinion was behind the president, as it seemed much more likely that aides were responsible rather than the president himself. In the televised hearings, however, Presidential Counsel John Dean, who had been given testimonial immunity, accused Nixon of being behind the cover-up as well as the cover-up of the cover-up. In an even more incendiary moment, a minor White House official, Alexander Butterfield, revealed that Nixon had installed a recording system in the White House and that he had surreptitiously taped every conversation that happened.

The following months were a firestorm. Cox looked to gain access to the tapes. Nixon refused to provide them and eventually fired both Cox and Richardson in what was known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Later, it came out that a critical 18 minutes in the tapes had been erased. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, asserted that she had inadvertently erased that part of the recording, but few people believed her story, and the public suspected that Nixon might destroy the tapes rather than give them up. Meanwhile, Nixon claimed executive privilege for why he did not have to turn over the tapes, which then set up a showdown before the Supreme Court involving the separation of powers, as laid out in the Constitution.

The Court ruled unanimously on July 24, 1974, that Nixon had to turn over the tapes. A week later, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that Nixon be impeached. Before that vote could be taken, however, Nixon resigned, on August 9, 1974. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who declared at his inauguration, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Of the many figures involved, one of the ones who distinguished himself the most was Senator Sam Ervin, who led the Watergate hearings. Television viewers saw him as the guardian of democracy, as he endeavored to hold Nixon and his aides accountable and to safeguard the separation of powers. His comments on the scandal, “Watergate and the Presidency,” are a thoughtful summary of what happened and why it was important. It is worth reading on its own.

About the Author

J. Robert Parks is a former professor and frequent contributor to Gale In Context: U.S. History and Gale In Context: World History who enjoys thinking about how our understanding of history affects and reflects contemporary culture.

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