President Nixon and Watergate

 President Nixon and Watergate
Congressmen listening to Nixon’s White House tapes during impeachment hearings.

With the Republican and Democratic primaries in full swing and the field of candidates narrowing, politics are in the air. Ads are inundating the airwaves, mailboxes are crammed with fliers, and candidates continue to make to talk show rounds seeking an edge over their opponents. Usually this means attacking records, digging up dirt or unflattering photographs, scandalous relations and so on. Candidates have been known to go to extreme measures to gain an edge, and perhaps none more famously than Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal. The Rosenberg Library has a very unique display related to this dark chapter in American politics for the April Treasure of the Month.

The Rosenberg Library’s Treasure of the Month for April featured unique artifacts related to the Watergate scandal. In 1980 Robert Havorson, a technical consultant to the House Judiciary Committee, donated two of three hundred and six sets of earphones used at the impeachment inquiry to the Rosenberg Library. Manufactured by Koss these headphones may have been some of the first to listen to the ‘smoking gun’ tape which documented Nixon formulating a plan to block investigation into the break in at Watergate. The listening station for the headphones features a special plaque noting the historical significance of the items.

 President Nixon and Watergate
The Rosenberg Library displayed two sets of Koss earphones used during impeachent hearings for President Richard Nixon. Donated by Robert Havorson.

Also on display were Nixon campaign buttons. One button is from the failed 1960 bid donated by Maury Darst in 1984, and the other is from the 1968 election donated by Lise Darst.

Setting the Stage

Richard Nixon had a long and successful political career. He represented California’s 12th district in the U.S. House from 1947 – 1950, served as U.S. Senator for California from 1950 – 1953, and served as President Eisenhower’s Vice President from 1953 – 1961. In 1960 he lost the Presidential election to John F. Kennedy after winning the popular vote, but securing fewer Electoral College votes. It was his first electoral defeat in fourteen years.

In 1962 he lost a race for Governor of California to Pat Brown, and famously told reporters in his concession speech “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” This wasn’t the case. After securing the Republican nomination, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election. He went on to win reelection by one of the largest margins in history in 1972 against George McGovern.

A Brewing Storm

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working at the RAND Corporation, leaked the Pentagon Papers (exposing troubling facts about the war in Vietnam), so the Nixon White House began a campaign to discredit him. On September 3, 1971 a group known as “The White House Plumbers” broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office looking for information that would discredit him. Months later “The Plumbers” were tasked with breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Building Complex in Washington D.C.. They were caught burglarizing and planting surveillance equipment and arrested. A tip from journalist Bob Wooward led to evidence that the group was tied to the White House. Soon after the Plumbers pled guilty to the break-in and officials linked to the President were tried and found guilty.

After the death of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, L. Patrick Gray took over the organization. During his confirmation hearing he admitted to providing daily updates on the Watergate investigation to the White House and indicated that White House Counsel John Dean likely lied to the F.B.I.. Dean then began to cooperate with investigators and admitted to speaking with Nixon numerous times about covering up the scandal.

 President Nixon and Watergate
Campaign buttons for Richard Nixon was part of the April Treasure of the Month display.

More evidence of wrong doing accumulated: one of the Plumbers admitted to perjury and indicated the White House played a role in the break in; Gray resigned after it came to light that he may have destroyed evidence, Nixon fired the Special Prosecutor and his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney resigned. In addition, one of Nixon’s campaign aid pled guilty to perjury, and it was revealed that all oval office conversations and calls were recorded. Access to the recordings eventually resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that the administration had to give up the tapes to investigators.

By July of 1974 the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment. A ‘smoking gun’ tape was soon released to investigators which documented a plan to block investigations into the burglary. Republican Senators informed Nixon that enough votes existed to convict him so on August 8, 1974 Richard Nixon announced his resignation. The next day Gerald Ford assumed the Presidency and pardoned Nixon a month later.

Watergate had profound consequences for American democracy. It eroded public trust in the highest elected office, forced officials to examine government surveillance programs and enact safeguards, paved the way for whistleblower protection laws. The scandal resulted in the Inspector General Act of 1978 which ensured the investigation of fraud, abuse, waste and misconduct for all federal agencies, and ushered in a new wave of elected officials dubbed the “Watergate Babies” because so many of them were young. It even changed the way American scandals are named. Today almost every big investigation has the suffix ‘gate’ to tie it to this dark chapter in U.S. History.

Past Treasures