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Far More Than Just A Burglary

'Watergate' as shorthand for a slew of official misdeeds

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (June 12) -- Some 25 years have passed since the bungled break-in at the Watergate hotel, a so-called "third-rate burglary," triggered a first-rate national crisis whose consequences still color the nation's politics. Like many other political scandals, Watergate grew to encompass far more than just the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Here's a look backward at everything that is Watergate.

By the time Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the term Watergate had become a catch-all for a breathtaking range of high crimes and misdemeanors. In all, more than 30 officials were convicted in the nation's worst political scandal ever.

There were other break-ins, like the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in September 1971. There was "national security" wiretapping of news reporters who revealed information the Nixon White House did not want uncovered.

There was misuse of the FBI and CIA for political purposes. There were allegations that Nixon intervened in an antitrust action against ITT in return for political contributions and raised milk support prices for similar considerations, and obstructed justice by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Finally, there was the smoking gun -- taped evidence that Nixon discussed a cover-up just a week after the Watergate burglary. Three days after the White House released those transcripts, Nixon announced his resigation. And soon Vice President Gerald Ford took office. "Our long national nightmare is over," he declared to a nation exhausted by a long cascade of scandal.

Senate Hearings And Courtroom Dramas

But beyond the crimes, Watergate conjures up other memories, too: a bold press in pursuit of a real whodunit as well as riveting Senate hearings and courtroom dramas that helped establish that no one, not even a president, is above the law.

The seeds of Watergate and Nixon's downfall were contained in the man himself, as tragic and twisted a figure as ever occupied the White House. Nixon was a gut fighter who came back from early political defeats to win the presidency -- narrowly in 1968, but by an epic margin in 1972.

Yet Nixon never seemed comfortable in his success. In a tumultuous time, with the country wracked by anger over the Vietnam War and racial conflict, he brought a siege mentality to the White House. For Nixon, it was an us-versus-them world, and them included academics, the Eastern establishment, the press, liberals and antiwar protestors.

That bunker mentality led, some three years before the Watergate break-in, to the placing of wiretaps on White House aides and news reporters, as Nixon tried to discover how word about the secret bombing of Cambodia had leaked out.

A secret White House unit, known as the "Plumbers," searched for leaks and tracked the president's political opponents. There was the famous "Enemies' List," which backfired and became a badge of honor in certain circles. Were you on it? Why not?

Nixon's Downfall

Nixon brought on his own destruction in the way he dealt with the crisis, too -- in fits and starts, with outright lies and half-truths.

As TIME noted in January 1974: "First there were blanket denials, lavish claims of executive privilege and invocations of national security. Then came repeated clarifications, previous statements declared 'inoperative,' and multiple promises of full disclosure. Subpoenas were resisted. The persistent Special Prosecutor was fired. Next a sudden yielding to the courts, followed by an Operation Candor that was far from candid, claims that crucial tapes were 'nonexistent' and the revelation of a mysterious flaw in one recording."

The White House's approach, dubbed a "limited hangout" strategy by some, satisfied neither Judge John J. Sirica nor Congress.

Releasing information in dribs and drabs only succeeded in converting Watergate into a riveting serial mystery. The question, as Sen. Howard Baker put it during the Senate hearings, was always, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

In the end, on Aug. 5, 1974, Americans got their answer. The president knew a lot, and he knew it early.





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