On June 17, 1972 (I was finishing second grade) Frank Wills, a 22 year-old night security guard in a Washington office building, ripped off some tape that was holding a door latch open. On his next round he noticed it had been replaced and he ripped it off again. Then he made a call. Frank Wills made history just doing his job. He trapped a group of burglars in the offices of the Democratic Party’s campaign to elect George McGovern president. They were being paid by the Republican campaign to re-elect Richard Nixon, and their task that night was to tap the Democrats’ phones. The taps were interrupted, the burglars were taken to court and convicted. Nixon won the election anyway.
Act II of Watergate consisted of investigations and legal proceedings at ascending levels of courts and Congress. These triggered cover-ups and destruction of evidence by top Republicans. As questions were raised about who was responsible for the operation – had Nixon known? – several layers of officials in his administration resigned or were fired. (There was no “stepping aside” or other prepositional pussyfooting in those days.)
The last act was the resignation of Nixon himself in August 1974, after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him. Unlike Bill Clinton and several others, Nixon never had to stand in Congress listening to a reading of his sins. Before that could happen, he stepped up into a helicopter and escaped to California and retirement.
Even as children we knew this story was important. It was our formative example of the disorderly yet orderly transfer of power – like the Kennedy assassination for the last generation, but in slow motion and with an uncertain outcome. (When I called down the cellar stairs to my mother that the TV said President Nixon would resign that night, she didn’t believe me. Still pleased to be right about that one.)
The first court cases were about breaking and entering, small-time criminal stuff, which is how Woodward and Bernstein got involved; they were city desk reporters and too green to have been co-opted by the powers yet. Fair play in elections was also an issue, but as the investigations and coverups progressed, executive privilege became the focus: Can the President be above the law? Can a President refuse to share documents and tapes with a court? (Refreshingly, the answer was no, not unless military or diplomatic secrets are involved.) These were compelling issues in an era of centralized mass media and lingering wartime seriousness; the World War II veterans were still in charge, and the Cold War was in its full second swing.
The Senate hearings were shown live on television for two weeks, a novelty in the days before C-SPAN. So of course were Nixon’s resignation address and farewell from the White House lawn, and these are the flashbulb moments. The same summer, Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, which became a bestseller and later an Oscar-winning film about the initial journalistic investigation of the crime. (Frank Wills played himself in the film.) Then there was David Frost’s 1977 series of television interviews with Nixon, which became a book, play, and film; and many other television specials, films and books, including Nixon’s autobiography RN.
Work hat on: Watergate left some traces on popular culture and language. Lexical and media-lexical effects included the coining of the derivational suffix -gate to refer to other scandals, and the emergence of catchphrases including “follow the money,” “eighteen-minute gap,” “Saturday night massacre,” “What did X know and when did X know it?” and “I am not a crook.” On the pragmatic front, All the President’s Men taught the public how journalists could use cooperative maxims and implicatures to piece together stories from participants (including the famous unnamed source “Deep Throat” – another catchphrase – later revealed to be an FBI official).
There were these shiny bits, and yet it seems strange now how riveting the American public found this intensely bureaucratic drama. I have described it in a nutshell above. The next layer requires dozens of names, titles, and dates; nested and framed accusations; Venn diagrams of confirmation, denial, and refusal to comment; White House organigrams; legal opinions and precedents. It is the fodder of presidential history, constitutional law, and logistics buffs.
Watergate was perhaps the most unglamorous scandal ever. It featured no interns, no fashion angle, no alcohol, no feathered nests, probably not so much as a breakfast fiddled on expenses. The money that was followed turned out to be all operational: it went to pay unscrupulous people to help the Republican Party win the election by whatever means possible, and keep them quiet about what they had done. It had much in common with the John le Carré thrillers – more office politics than grand politics. It was also almost entirely domestic, though a few of the original burglars were anti-Castro emigrés from Cuba. The other great powers were busy with other things.
Dry as it seems from a distance, Watergate was the talk at water coolers and dinner tables. An estimated 85 percent of American households watched some part of the Senate hearings. An estimated 45 million people tuned in to at least the opening broadcast of the Frost/Nixon interviews. We might not have understood it all, but we watched.
Coverage was helped by arriving in the period of maximal reach and centralization of what we now call mainstream media. By 1974 nearly everybody had what we now call free-to-air television, though the choice of channels was limited by regulation and technology. (Only the big three networks and PBS transmitted clearly to our rabbit-ear TV.). Network executives agreed that this story was important. So we watched it. Entertainment shows were cancelled to make room for the Watergate events so there was less choice as well. (Ten years people were already getting cable, though we never did.)
The biggest previous US presidential scandal, the Teapot Dome affair in the ‘20s (oil rights), would only have been on newspaper and radio. Coverage of it did not directly anduniquely bring down the Harding administration, although it probably helped. Scandals after Watergate have not had such seismic impact either – though you’d think it would be seen as a more serious flout of public trust to go to war on dodgy information or foment insurrection while president. The Republican Party has turned its electoral manipulation to state and local-level stuff such as manipulating boundaries, voting hours and registration. No top-down command needed: more of a hive mind, and harder to budge through courts and media.
Frank Wills, by the way, died poor at 52. Thank you and rest in peace.
(Photo: IMDb / All the President’s Men)