It was 40 years ago today that operatives linked to Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., looking for material that could be used to damage then presidential candidate Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) and his fellow Dems. Police arrested five men for the crime.
Three months later, those five--along with Nixon re-election committee general counsel G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA operative/spy novelist E. Howard Hunt--were indicted for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws.
The ensuing Watergate scandal--the worst example of U.S. political malfeasance since the Teapot Dome bribery scandal of the 1920s--led to a White House cover-up, televised hearings in the U.S. Senate, mass firings in the Justice Department, threats of impeaching and removing Nixon from office, and the Republican president’s announcement, on August 8, 1974, that he would relinquish the Oval Office in favor of Vice President Gerald Ford, who had been in office for less than a full year (having been appointed to replace Nixon’s previous running mate, Spiro Agnew, who’d been forced to resign amid charges of tax-evasion). The scandal also made heroes of the two Washington Post reporters who did the most to reveal Watergate’s numerous aspects, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and encouraged myriad young journalism students to become investigative reporters.
Over the four decades since, many Watergate-era legal reforms have been instituted, only to be rolled back, and the Watergate crime scene has been all but forgotten. The increasingly corporate news media have slackened off considerably from their valuable public mission of holding politicians (such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and others) accountable for their deliberate, repeated lies. And the Watergate scandal has almost entered the realm of myth, an event so big and dramatic in scale that (like the 1912 Titanic sinking) it can hardly be accepted anymore as having actually happened. Yet it did happen, and those of us who lived through the daily drips and spills and floods of scandal news in newspapers and on television won’t forget how the paranoia of a president and his enabling minions brought shame upon America’s political system. Even 40 years later, the anger and disgust engendered by that national nightmare haven’t completely dissipated.
I think that’s for the good.
READ MORE: “40 Years After Watergate, Scandal Full of What-ifs Still Captivates,” by Mark S. Smith (Associated Press); “In Need of a New Historical Touchstone,” by Steve Benen (The Maddow Blog); “3 Thrillers Inspired by Watergate,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Kirkus Reviews); “Do You Know the Other Watergate?” by Tom Cochran (Ghosts of D.C.); “The Secret Story of Richard Nixon’s First Scandal,” by Jeffrey Frank (Salon).