WATERGATE: A Case of Legacy and Lessons

We have heard many stories of scandals in our lives, even in our country. But, today, I will tell you a story of a famous scandal from the US…the Watergate Scandal. The scandal was so significant that the resident had to resign from his post. Not just that, the case served as a benchmark for history. Also, it showed the ‘real’ power of media, something every aspiring media person should know about.

“The Horse is in the House”

It was 1:30 am on the morning of the 17th of June, 1972. The location was the WATERGATE Hotel, which also happened to be the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. 5 burglars broke into the building. They stole many confidential documents and wiretapped phones, related to top Democratic leaders. It was not just a simple robbery, but there were bugging devices, tear gas, pens, many film rolls, and locksmith tools with the burglars. Now, three weeks later, the burglars were instructed that one of the bugs they planted was defective, so they need to fix it. Then, the burglars plan for a repeat. Two of the men…Liddy and Mccord were keeping an eye from the opposite building.

In order to avoid fingerprints, the burglars applied tapes on the door knobs. They were quite assured about not getting caught, as cleaners also used to apply such tapes. But, the security guard Frank Wills overran their luck. He noticed the tape and simply removed it (thinking it was put by a cleaner). But, after an hour, he again saw the tape at the same door knob. He knew something is fishy and he immediately called the police. Suddenly, the policemen entered the building casually dressed. Liddy was watching them but didn’t find them suspicious. The burglars had no idea when, suddenly, they were caught red-handed at gunpoint. One of the burglars somehow managed to send a radio message to Liddy…” They got us”.

Eugenio Martinez, Watergate burglar pardoned by Reagan, dies at 98

Pic: The 5 Burglars who broke into the Watergate Hotel

And…the Investigation Starts

Both Gordon Liddy and Mccord were caught as well. A significant sum of money was found from the burglars. One of the notebooks recovered from the burglars had names of prominent Democratic names. After this, one serious revelation after the other started surfacing. A letter surfaced which told that the burglars were being pressurized to get the name of the White House off the case through some Hush Money. But, the White House released a statement, saying Nixon won’t comment on any ‘third-rate’ burglary. So, that many coincidences occurring at the same time suggested just one thing…that this is a political burglary.

The Political Scenario

Things will get more clear if we look at the political situation of that time. Presidential Elections were around the corner. American President Richard Nixon was up for reelection against the Democratic challenger George Mcgovern. The competition was not going to be very tight. But, Nixon didn’t want just to win but win by the ‘greatest’ margin ever in US history, so he decided to do something ‘extra’.

Despite all this, amidst all the chaos going on, Nixon was able to keep a huge majority to trust him. As a result, Republican Party swept almost all the states and Nixon was reelected with a  landslide victory. While Nixon had taken the oath, the American troops had withdrawn from Vietnam (a huge event from US’s perspective).

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Pic: Nixon won his second term by a record margin 

The Power of the PRESS

Here, despite all the political happenings, the matter hadn’t gone down in the media. Significantly, the two low-ranking journalists who were tirelessly working on the case were, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The next day, the two got a tip from an anonymous whistleblower. The source was termed as DEEPTHROAT. The head turned out to be a huge breakthrough in the case. It straightaway told that this whole episode is undertaken by the White House under the complete direction of Nixon. Trusting only ‘this’ source, the two journalists got this news published on the front page of the Washington Post. Now, the case had become a fire in the jungle.

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Pic: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward 

‘Saturday Night Massacre’

On 30th January 1973, Nixon’s aides Gordon Liddy and James Mccord Junior were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. After this, voting took place in the Senate for setting up a committee to review the whole case. Guess what…the US Senate voted 77-0. 77-0…against the President…can you believe this? Here in the court as well, Justice Sirica too was not letting it go that easy. He was specifically putting pressure on the FBI to grill the burglars if they had any role in the scandal.

All this while, due to media and the ongoing revelations, the public pressure too started mounting. Nixon also understood that the case is going against him. Now, his paranoid and hyper-angry self also started coming out. He was getting angry with his men and started considering the press as his enemy. On 17th November 1973, Nixon famously said in public “I’m not a Crook”!  In frustration, he decided to fire Archibald Cox, an independent prosecutor, who was working very heavily on the case. All the government officials protested looking at this and resigned in protest. Even after all this Nixon did fire him. This chain of events is known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

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‘The Smoking Gun’

In March 1974, a grand jury officially charged 6 of Nixon’s close aides as the conspirators of the case. They were unsure and scared of charging a President, so they charged Nixon as an ‘unindicted’ co-conspirator. Now, a fact came out that Nixon has been recording every conversation in the White House. So, the FBI wanted the tapes to properly investigate the matter. Despite all this, everything being the opposite of Nixon, he refused to release the tapes, citing them as his ‘executive privilege. White House tries to make a lame excuse that when Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods was transcribing the tapes, she accidentally erased an 18 and half minute section. She reenacted the complete moment, and that moment was termed ‘The Rosemary Stretch’.

Despite all this, on the 24th of July, the Supreme Court gave the mega ruling that Nixon has to release the tapes. The tapes straightaway revealed his role in the cover-up of the Watergate crimes. But, what it also released was that Nixon was using vulgar language in the tapes. The tapes of the 23rd June 1972 were the most important as the President was even using the CIA to control the damage. He said that “The Burglary will be exposed as 4 of the burglars are CIA agents involved in the 1961 ‘Bay of Pigs’ operation in Cuba”. The media termed this the ‘Smoking Gun’.

And…the Game was Over

After all the facts were revealed, a House Judiciary Committee, came forward to vote to IMPEACH Nixon from the post. He was impeached on the charges of Abuse of Power, Criminal Cover Up and multiple Violations of the Constitution. So, this became evident that despite having such a huge mandate, Nixon had to resign. Finally, historically on the 9th of August 1974 when Nixon didn’t want to become the first US President to resign from office. So, avoiding the Senate Trial and Impeachment, he addressed the nation. He said that “I am not a Quitter, but the country needs a full-time president and to help the American interests, I am resigning from his post”. Vice President Gerald Ford took over the same day. He proved to be a loyal man and pardoned Nixon for his crimes.

watergate scandal

Pic: Finally Richard Nixon resigned from the post

There are still some other theories regarding the case. A theory says that Democratic Party received funding from Cuba and the burglars broke in to investigate only that. A theory alleges that Nixon borrowed 100 thousand dollars from millionaire Howard Hughes. And, Democratic chairman Larry O’ Brien knew about this. So, Nixon sent the burglars to find and finish all such evidence. But, all these are just theories, what is concrete is before us.

The Legacy of the Landmark Case

The Watergate case turned out to be a landmark case in US history as it brought many landmark moments. Since Nixon himself was a lawyer, so this case was a huge question mark on the lawyers. Firstly, after this, the American Bar Association released a model of rules of professional conduct. It also made ‘professional responsibility an important part of the law curriculum. secondly, in 1976, National Emergencies Act 1976 was enacted, which codified the powers of the President to avoid any abuse of power in the future.

Also, when the SC said that Nixon would have to release the tapes, it also said that the “President is not above the Law”. This statement turned into a huge moment in US history. Thirdly, and most importantly, it was said in one of the New York Times report that normal US citizens are also being spied on during the investigation. Due to this, the Church Committee was set up which enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It set up a special court which compromised the surveillance powers of the state.

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A Case to be Learnt From

Now, that’s what we call media, that’s what we call the institutions and that’s what we call a DEMOCRACY. Yes, there are 100 faults in the US, and even I bluntly criticize it. But, something that we can learn from them is the way the US has kept its institutions strong enough against politics. Aren’t we the same country that couldn’t even investigate something as huge as PEGASUS? If the allegations are that the CJI, Election Commissioner, Opposition politicians, prominent journalists and many of the citizens are being snooped, isn’t it an earth-shattering matter? Now, ask this question to yourself, in India, is our Judiciary as powerful as this, is our CBI as independent as this and most importantly, is our Media as responsible and sincere as this? Even you know that the answer to all these questions is NO. And…that’s what we need to strive for. Just putting a Tiranga DP won’t help. If you truly want India to improve, you need to accept and work on some hard truths.

Now, before I end, there is a ‘post-credit scene’ for you all. After you all have understood the whole Watergate story, many of you must be wondering, who was that anonymous whistleblower Deepthroat. Well…more than 30 years later, the man came forward.  out that the DEEP THROAT, the source that changed the course of American history, was the FBI Deputy-Director W. Mark Felt. While Nixon was trying to use the top officials to help him get off the case. W. Mark Felt stood by his conscience and worked for truth. Today the Watergate case still serves as a warning against the dangers of Unchecked Power and the importance of Presidential Accountability. 3 years after resigning, Nixon said in an interview-

“I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden for the rest of my life”.

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