President Richard M. Nixon Essay, Research Paper
Watergate, designation of a major U.S. political scandal that began with the burglary
and wiretapping of the Democratic party’s campaign headquarters, later engulfed
President Richard M. Nixon and many of his supporters in a variety of illegal acts, and
culminated in the first resignation of a U.S. president.
The burglary was committed on June 17, 1972, by five men who were caught in the
offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate apartment and office
complex in Washington, D.C. Their arrest eventually uncovered a White
House-sponsored plan of espionage against political opponents and a trail of complicity
that led to many of the highest officials in the land, including former U.S. Attorney
General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, White House Chief of Staff H.
R. Haldeman, White House Special Assistant on Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and
President Nixon himself.
On April 30, 1973, nearly a year after the burglary and arrest and following a grand jury
investigation of the burglary, Nixon accepted the resignation of Haldeman and
Ehrlichman and announced the dismissal of Dean. U.S. Attorney General Richard
Kleindienst resigned as well. The new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, appointed a
special prosecutor, Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox, to conduct a full-scale
investigation of the Watergate break-in.
In May 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities opened hearings,
with Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina as chairman. A series of startling revelations
followed. Dean testified that Mitchell had ordered the break-in and that a major attempt
was under way to hide White House involvement. He claimed that the president had
authorized payments to the burglars to keep them quiet. The Nixon administration
vehemently denied this assertion.
The White House Tapes
The testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield unlocked the entire
investigation. On July 16, 1973, Butterfield told the committee, on nationwide
television, that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House to
automatically record all conversations; what the president said and when he said it
could be verified. Cox immediately subpoenaed eight relevant tapes to confirm Dean’s
testimony. Nixon refused to release the tapes, claiming they were vital to the national
security. U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica ruled that Nixon must give the tapes to
Cox, and an appeals court upheld the decision.
Nixon held firm. He refused to turn over the tapes and, on Saturday, October 20, 1973,
ordered Richardson to dismiss Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead, as did
Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Finally, the solicitor general discharged
A storm of public protest resulted from this Saturday night massacre. In response,
Nixon appointed another special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, a Texas lawyer, and gave
the tapes to Sirica. Some subpoenaed conversations were missing, and one tape had a
mysterious gap of 181 minutes. Experts determined that the gap was the result of five
In March 1974 a grand jury indicted Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and four other
White House officials for their part in the Watergate cover-up and named Nixon as an
unindicted co-conspirator. The following month Jaworski requested and Nixon
released written transcripts of 42 more tapes. The conversations revealed an
overwhelming concern with punishing political opponents and thwarting the Watergate
In May 1974 Jaworski requested 64 more tapes as evidence in the criminal cases
against the indicted officials. Nixon refused; on July 24, the Supreme Court voted 8-0
that Nixon must turn over the tapes.
On July 29-30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of
impeachment, charging Nixon with misusing his power in order to violate the
constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, obstructing justice in the Watergate affair, and
defying Judiciary Committee subpoenas.
Soon after the Watergate scandal came to light, investigators uncovered a related group
of illegal activities: Since 1971 a White House group called the plumbers had been
doing whatever was necessary to stop leaks to the press. A grand jury indicted
Ehrlichman, White House Special Counsel Charles Colson, and others for organizing a
break-in and burglary in 1971 of a psychiatrist’s office to obtain damaging material
against Daniel Ellsberg, who had publicized classified documents called the Pentagon
Investigators also discovered that the Nixon administration had solicited large sums of
money in illegal campaign contributions used to finance political espionage and to pay
more than $500,000 to the Watergate burglars and that certain administration
officials had systematically lied about their involvement in the break-in and cover-up. In
addition, White House aides testified that in 1972 they had falsified documents to make
it appear that President John F. Kennedy had been involved in the 1963 assassination
of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, and had written false and slanderous
documents accusing Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of moral improprieties.
Throughout this period of revelations, Nixon’s support in Congress and popularity
nationwide steadily eroded. On August 5, 1974, three tapes revealed that Nixon had, on
June 23, 1972, ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to stop investigating the
Watergate break-in. The tapes also showed that Nixon himself had helped to direct the
cover-up of the administration’s involvement in the affair.
Rather than face almost certain impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, the first
U.S. president to do so. A month later his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him for all
crimes he might have committed while in office; Nixon was then immune from federal
The Watergate scandal severely shook the faith of the American people in the
presidency and turned out to be a supreme test for the U.S. Constitution. Throughout
the ordeal, however, the constitutional system of checks and balances worked to
prevent abuses, as the Founding Fathers had intended. Watergate showed that in a
nation of laws no one is above the law, not even the president.