How the Watergate Scandal Worked

Presidents Image Gallery President Richard Nixon. See more pictures of the presidents.
Presidents Image Gallery President Richard Nixon. See more pictures of the presidents.

If you were conscious in the early 1970s, then you know about Watergate. Even if you were only six years old, you know about it. It was a massive news story that played out like a soap opera over the course of several years. It could be that Watergate was the news story to end all news stories.

If you were not conscious during the 1970s, then you have heard the word "Watergate" but may have no idea what it means. One reason for that is the fact that it was a very messy, convoluted, wide-ranging story with lots of moving parts. So let's review.

From the public's point of view, Watergate started on June 17, 1972. On this day, five men got arrested at an office suite in the Watergate Hotel/office facility. The five men looked as though they were burglarizing the Democratic National Committee office, but it turned out they were there to fix some bugs that they had planted a week earlier. The five men were eventually found to be employees of a secret White House effort set up to spy on the Democratic Party.

That, obviously, was bad enough. Then it was discovered that the money to fund this secret effort came by re-channeling campaign contributions in various illegal ways. And the money funded a very large spying organization that also engaged in sabotage.

Nixon Impeachment and Resignation

Watergate complex
Watergate complex
The Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

At this point, none of these activities linked to or tainted President Nixon. He won re-election on November 7, 1972, by a landslide.

The whole thin­g came unraveled and got firmly attached to Nixon in 1973. First, memos turned up that linked Nixon and his office to the crimes. And then, in July 1973, the world learned that all of Nixon's Oval Office transactions (either spoken in meetings or on the telephone) had been recorded on tapes starting in 1971. This discovery marked the beginning of the tape scandal. Nixon would not turn over the tapes. Then, once he was compelled (by a Supreme Court order) to turn them over, a key section had been erased.

Nixon's letter of resignation, addressed to Henry Kissinger

At this point Congress began the process of impeachment, and Nixon resigned. He was the first (and still the only) president to do so.

It was an amazing period in American history, and it completely redefined the role of the media in American politics. Reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times were responsible for untangling and announcing many of the different parts of this scandal. Since Watergate, the press has played a major role in keeping government honest.

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