Watergate DaysPosted August 2nd, 2012
by Clifford Goldstein
I first heard of Watergate at about the same time most Americans did. A story came out in the summer of 1972 about a team of men caught burglarizing the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Because election fervor was high (the presidential election would arrive in a few months), my instant thought was that “Tricky Dick” (an unflattering nickname some had pinned on President Richard Nixon) was at it again.
Actually, though, I wasn’t hostile toward President Nixon. Because I would turn 18 in 1973, and thus would have been eligible for the military draft and service in the Viet Nam War, I was grateful that Nixon was ending that conflict. This meant I would not have to worry about getting blown up in a war that just about everyone, except the military-industrial complex, opposed by that time.
Over the course of the next year, since I was a senior in high school, I had a lot of things on my mind other than Washington scandal. The election came and went, Nixon was re-elected, and Watergate just kind of pulsated in the background. Polls showed that, in the first year after the break-in, most Americans really didn’t care about Watergate. They were much more worried about Viet Nam and a bad economy.
The next summer—the summer of ’73—I spent wandering around Europe, mostly out of the information loop when it came to the scandal. In Holland, I was harassed by a Dutch guy who, obviously not liking Americans, kept taunting me by saying, “Vatergate! Vatergate!” Other than that, not much.
Big City Newspaper
That fall, after coming back from Europe and starting junior college as a journalism major, I got a job as a copy boy at The Miami Herald. I was a gopher—go for this, go for that—and I loved it. It was a rush to work at a big city newspaper.
Part of my job at The Herald was to work the teletype machines. News stories coming over the wires were automatically typed out by these loud, slow devices (we were still years away from office computers and printers). There were about a dozen teletype machines, each constantly clacking and clanking and beeping.
It was my job to read each story, identify the topic, then channel the story to the appropriate editor. I’d tear the stories apart as they came off the machines and deliver each one to the appropriate editor’s desk.
As it turned out, it became my job to spend hours every day reading about Watergate. I’d read a story and then, an hour later, read it again with a little more information added. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I was becoming a walking Watergate encyclopedia. I was totally fascinated. My friends were amazed at how I could spit out detail after detail of the scandal and all the intrigue behind it.
As an 18-year-old journalism major, I almost worshipped Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two young reporters at the Washington Post who pretty much single-handedly broke the story. And it was a story, as it turned out, that brought down an American president.
To this day, questions remain about motives for the burglary. If it was purely about political strategy it was a waste. Nixon trounced his opponent, George McGovern, in the fall election. It was an outcome that was almost guaranteed, regardless of what they might have hoped to gain by the break-in.
What we do know is that, on a night in June 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the upscale Watergate complex, noticed a small strip of tape on an office door. The tape restrained a door latch from clicking shut. Wills removed the tape and continued on his rounds. Returning an hour later, he found that the tape he had removed had been replaced.
Wills called the police, and that night five men were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
It didn’t help matters that one of the men arrested, James McCord, was on the payroll of CRP, the Committee to Re-elect the President (some referred to it as “creep”). The committee had Nixon’s former Attorney General, John Mitchell, as its head. Mitchell, it was later alleged, approved the funding for the crime.
When first asked about the break-in, a White House spokesman said he would not comment on “a third-rate burglary.” However, we now know that Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, discussed the break-in shortly after it took place, hoping to persuade the CIA to dissuade the FBI from opening an investigation.
As the months unfolded, the scandal grew. Americans were inundated with stories about slush funds, hush funds, secret tapes, and secret gaps on tapes. There were political dirty tricks, bribery, and conspiracy. In the midst of it all was the shadowy secret informer known as “Deep Throat,” who provided a steady stream of leads to Woodward and Bernstein.
Not until 33 years later was Deep Throat’s identity revealed. He turned out to be a high-ranking FBI official named Mark Felt. (Before this revelation I used to say, half-jokingly, that when I got to heaven one of the first questions I would ask was, “Who was Deep Throat?” Such was the impression the scandal had on me.)
As the crisis implicated more and more key players, White House Counsel John Dean privately told Nixon that there was “a cancer on the presidency.” It wasn’t long until numerous senior Nixon officials were facing prosecution for perjury and obstruction of justice.
In April 1973, U.S. attorneys told Nixon that members of his staff, including Haldeman, Dean, and Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John Ehrlichman, were implicated in the cover-up. Each one was eventually charged and convicted of crimes relating to Watergate.
By the time Nixon finally resigned in disgrace, nearly seventy people were on the road toward conviction for Watergate-related offenses. Many did prison time.
A few things particularly stand out in my memory. While working at The Miami Herald, I was astonished at the news, which came to light during a Senate hearing involving a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield, that Nixon had a secret taping system to record phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office.
Secret tape recordings? Really? You couldn’t make this stuff up!
Those tapes, in fact, led to a massive legal battle between Nixon’s White House and the investigators. It was a battle that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Nixon had to turn over the tapes. Those tapes, perhaps more than anything else, sealed his doom.
Saturday Night Massacre
One Saturday night while I was at work, an editor shouted across the newsroom, “Nixon fired Cox!”
Archibald Cox was the special prosecutor brought in to investigate the scandal. When Cox refused to accept a compromise on the tapes, Nixon contacted Attorney General Elliot Richardson and ordered him to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He also refused and resigned.
Nixon then contacted Solicitor General Robert Bork and ordered him, as acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox. Bork also hesitated but was persuaded by Richardson to remain in his post, ensuring that someone who understood the workings of the Justice Department would still be on the job. Ultimately, Bork did comply with Nixon’s order and fired Cox. The resignations and the firing came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” It was another crucial turning point in the scandal.
As things got worse, the president, in a line that has lived on in history, declared at a press conference, “I am not a crook.” But, again, he was lying.
By the later summer of 1974, Americans felt as if they were being strangled by the scandal. It seemed to be all anyone talked about. It was wearing down the American psyche.
Then came the day when I heard on my car radio that Nixon had ordered his lawyers to stop their work in his defense. That night, August 8, I and the whole Miami Herald news room (and most of America), watched in rapt attention as Nixon resigned.
“By taking this action,” Nixon said in a dramatic television address from the Oval Office, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” Then, coming as close to admitting guilt as he seemed to be able, Nixon said, “I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.”
In a final speech to the White House staff, a teary-eyed Nixon said, with considerable insight, “Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
A Different Perspective
It’s been forty years, this summer, since the Watergate story broke into public awareness. Looking back, especially from a Christian perspective, I can find powerful lessons to take away from what Nixon’s replacement in the White House, Gerald Ford, called “our long national nightmare.”
First, as the Bible says, “God is not mocked. As a man sows, so shall he reap” (Galatian 6:7). Because of the mysterious eighteen-and-a half-minute gap on one of the tapes that Nixon was ordered to deliver to investigators, we will probably never know if the president approved of the break-in beforehand, or even knew about it beforehand. Many experts think he did not. Nixon was, however, unquestionably involved in trying to hinder the investigation. That was obstruction of justice, a crime in itself.
Of course, not everyone gets caught in their malfeasance. However, one need not get caught in order to suffer. Sin always damages us; we might confess, repent, and move on. The cross has provided a way forward for us precisely because we are sinners. But the damage done by sin can have a lasting impact long after it has been forgiven. Just consider another powerful leader from another time, King David.
Second, Watergate demonstrates that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are told in the Bible, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That principle cuts both ways. It is likely that only a small number of people originally knew about the Watergate break-in. Before long, however, many others were drawn in, their lives irrevocably changed. Eventually, the entire nation was deeply affected by what was, at first, the work of not more than a dozen men. Truly, our words and actions have an impact reaching far beyond our own immediate sphere.
Third, Watergate demonstrates how small dishonesties of seemingly little significance can lead, step-by-step, to a very bad place. If President Nixon had simply said, when the burglary was discovered, “This should not have happened. The persons involved have been dealt with. I apologize to those whose privacy was violated,” what would have been the outcome? Probably it would have been in the news for a day or two, and then it would have been over. Instead, one thing led to another, and another, and another, until the president resigned in disgrace.
Finally, Watergate demonstrates just how crucial law is. An important lesson from Watergate is that, however tumultuous and painful the scandal, the laws of the land worked. In many other countries, tanks would have been in the streets before a sitting leader could have been removed. Most likely, such a leader simply would have remained in power.
In the case of Watergate, however, the most powerful man in the world was removed from office without a shot being fired or a tank rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. Watergate was a powerful testimony to the value of law.
If human law, as flawed as it is, worked as well as it did in the case of the Watergate scandal, how much more so God’s law? If the U.S. government—or any government—cannot function effectively without law, why should God’s government be expected to? The fact is, it doesn’t. That is why we have the Ten Commandments, the foundation of all good law. No question, law is essential for any free people, and because we have been created free, we need law.
Yes, it has been forty years since Watergate. The nation survived it—quite well, in fact—and the lessons remain. How well will we learn from those lessons? That is a very good question.