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What Was the Watergate Scandal?

By Shannon Cam
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Watergate scandal was a political scandal that forever tarnished the United States presidency and reputation of Richard Nixon. It resulted in the indictment and eventual conviction of several of the president's closest advisers and prompted Nixon's resignation from office on 09 August 1974.

The scandal actually began over two years prior to Nixon's resignation. In June of 1972, five men were arrested for attempting to break into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, located in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Baker, James W. McCord Jr., Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis were charged with attempted burglary and the attempted interception of telephone and other communications. After extensive investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the House Judiciary Committee, the Senate Watergate Committee as well as the national press, it became apparent that the break-in was probably only the tip of the iceberg of questionable or outright illegal activities undertaken by the staff of the Nixon administration.

The Watergate scandal revealed countless abuses of power by Nixon and his staff as well as the existence of a "dirty tricks squad" that was responsible for political sabotage, the creation of a campaign slush fund associated with Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CPR), and the attempted cover-up of the Watergate scandal itself.

During the Congressional investigation of the White House's role in the scandal, it came to light that there was a listening devise in place that recorded everything in the Oval Office on tape. These tapes became central to the investigation of Nixon's knowledge of and potential involvement in the Watergate scandal and as such were subpoenaed first by Archibald Cox, the special counsel within the Attorney General's office assigned to the Watergate inquiry, and then by the Senate. Nixon refused to release the tapes on grounds of executive privilege and ordered that Cox drop his subpoena. When Cox refused, Nixon orchestrated what has come to be known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

After it became clear that Cox planned to pursue the subpoena, Nixon demanded that Attorney General Elliot Richardson fire him. Richardson refused, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Nixon had them both fired in an attempt to find someone in Justice Department willing to fire Cox. After Cox's eventual removal at the hands of new Department head Robert Bork, Leon Jaworski was appointed to take his place. Jaworski succeeded in getting Nixon to release at least partial versions of the controversial tape recordings, one of which showed evidence of an 18 minute portion having been erased. Given the fact that the tape had never been out of White House custody, many considered it proof of a cover-up.

Nixon resigned from office on 09 August 1974, immediately after the release of a tape containing conversations recorded days after the break-in between Nixon and his staff concerning a plan to block the pending investigation. The tape was and still is referred to as Nixon's "smoking gun." Succeeding President Gerald Ford issued a controversial pardon for Nixon a month later, on 08 September 1974, that prevented him from ever being prosecuted for any crimes he may have committed while President.

The Watergate scandal generated a general distrust of the Republican party, resulting in Democrats gaining five seats in the Senate and 49 in the House in the next election. It also became a principle factor in the rewriting of the Freedom of Information Act in 1976. Its impact on national and popular culture has been so profound, in fact, that many modern scandals have since been cursed with the suffix "-gate."

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Moldova — On Dec 24, 2010

GreenWeaver-We have had other presidential scandals in the past, but this one always receives the most attention.

For example, President Clinton perjured himself when he lied about his sexual relationship with his intern. Some people felt that this was a private matter and not one that the public should have an opinion about.

But here we have a sitting president that is lying under oath in order to cover up a dishonest act. He was later impeached by congress, but this act of covering up a lie will forever be remembered as President Clinton’s legacy.

Those famous words, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky” will forever are ingrained in our memory just like Nixon’s famous words that we will not have him to kick around any more.

I often wonder if President Clinton had been a Republican would the biased press have covered the incident differently.

By GreenWeaver — On Dec 22, 2010

The Watergate scandal changed how people viewed President Nixon. This Watergate scandal tarnished the office of the presidency as an institution and it was the first time in the history of our nation that a sitting president resigned from office.

The Watergate scandal explained the overzealous nature of President Nixon who wanted to seek a second term and win at all costs.

The cover up and lying were things that the American people could not understand and why he felt that he had to get information from his opponents camp appeared unseemly especially for a sitting President.

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