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The Watergate Scandal in American History


The Watergate scandal occurred on the evening of June 17, 1972. This scandal affected American politics and understanding the role of the Supreme Court in American politics and life. It calls for an understanding of the factual and social environmental underpinnings of litigation that comes to the high court for review by the justices. Although the Watergate Tapes litigation came to the Court in late May 1974, the justices, like all Americans, were fascinated and saddened by the tenor of the events that shook society prior to the formal legal arguments before the Court.

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On the evening of June 17, 1972, the five conspirators were Bernard L. Barker, a Florida realtor and former CIA agent involved with the Bay of Pigs operation; Virgilio Gonzalez, a Miami locksmith who had come from Cuba prior to Fidel Castro’s rise to power; Eugenio R. Martinez, who worked in Barker’s real estate company and was an anti-Castro Cuban with CIA connections; James W. McCord, Jr., a security person with the Republican National Committee and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (chaired by former Nixon Attorney General John N. Mitchell); and Frank Sturgis, who had also worked at the CIA (Woodward 11). Hunt and another more eerie member of the group, G. Gordon Liddy (who then counseled to the Finance Committee to Re-Elect the President and who had been a former FBI agent and former member of the White House staff), were arrested later and charged with the break-in along with five compatriots. Within hours of the arrest of the five burglars, high officials in the Nixon administration, including Chief Counselor for Domestic Affairs in the White House John Ehrlichman, and Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, were meeting to develop damage control plans. In one week, on June 23, 1972, President Nixon himself was to become irrevocably involved in the cover-up. The later revelation of White House involvement led to his decision to resign. On that day, Nixon met with Bob Haldeman, who informed the president that Nixon’s counsel John W. Dean III, and former Attorney General and head of the Committee to Re-Elect President John Mitchell had recommended that the CIA be called in to obstruct the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in. The CIA had to have instructions from Nixon to interfere in the name of national security, and Haldeman was there to seek Nixon’s position (Roberts and Watergate 898. From that moment on, regardless of whether Nixon consciously or unconsciously tore that conversation from his memory or whether the reality of his involvement remained in his mind, the president publicly pronounced himself innocent of any wrongdoing in the Watergate mess and privately told close friends and advisors, including his legal counsel, that he had not been involved in the Watergate affair. Regardless of the psychological or pathological rationale, President Richard M. Nixon lied to the American people (Woodward 16).

By August 1972, with allegations about White House involvement in the break-in running on the media, Nixon announced that no one in his administration had been involved with the break-in. His investigation was conducted by his counsel, Dean. There was, as well, a Justice Department investigation of the break-in, the president remarked. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell resigned as the Chairman of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. As the tapes were to show much later, by the time of the trial of the plumbers, the White House began the futile efforts to cover up its involvement in the break-in. Although President Nixon won reelection handily against his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern, reporters and others did not let the Watergate matter end (Quirk 2).

In the fall of 1972, the Washington Post reporting team of Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein began their Watergate-related investigative reporting with stories of widespread Republican party “dirty tricks” against the Democratic candidates. Their stories soon began to involve members of Nixon’s inner circle, particularly Donald Segretti, who was hired by Nixon’s own appointments secretary, Dwight Chapin, and Gordon Strachan, a White House staff aide who was paid by Herbert W. Kalbach, Nixon’s personal attorney. In a federal district court in January 1973, Hunt, Barker, Stur- gis, Gonzalez, and Martinez pleaded guilty. In a criminal trial presided over by Chief Judge John J. Sirica, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, Liddy, and McCord were found guilty of the crimes of conspiracy and burglary, and wiretapping violations. Sentencing occurred in March 1973; Liddy received a prison sentence of more than six years (Genovese 234). Before McCord was sentenced, however, he wrote a letter to Sirica indicating that others were involved in the burglary and the conspiracy and that perjury had been committed Sirica postponed sentencing until McCord had a chance to testify before a federal Grand Jury and before a special Senate committee, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, that was soon to begin investigating Watergate. In April 1973 Sirica granted McCord immunity from any further criminal prosecution, and the burglary participant began testifying before the Grand Jury (Genovese 234).

The Ervin Committee formally called the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, began hearing testimony in public, on television, in May 1973. President Nixon at a televised press conference told the nation that all members of his White House staff would appear voluntarily to answer questions before the Ervin Committee (Quirk 2). More and more leaks began appearing in the press about White House staff involved in the break-in. Mitchell and Dean were prominently mentioned in these stories, as was Ehrlichman. In late April, half a dozen White House staffers and others, including Nixon’s re-election campaign manager, Jeb Stewart Magruder, and Acting Director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray (who was replaced by William D. Ruckelshaus) offered their resignations. On April 30, 1973, President Nixon made an effort to end the discussion by dismissing his chief advisors and others on his staff, including Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst. Although Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, and others were fired and replaced by noncontroversial, competent persons ( Elliot L. Richardson became the attorney general, Alexander Haig became the chief of staff, and Leonard Garment became Nixon’s counsel), Watergate continued to invade homes across America and the world through the televised Ervin Committee sessions (Roberts and Watergate 898).

On May 12, 1972, nearly eleven months after the break-in occurred, the Senate, given the stories of executive personnel involvement in the Watergate scandal, approved by voice vote a resolution (introduced by Senator Charles Percy calling for the president to appoint a special prosecutor, subject to confirmation by the Senate, to head the governmental investigation of Watergate (Woodward 28). In an effort to minimize the damage being caused by Watergate, Nixon, on May 16, 1973, asked Congress to create an independent commission to reform the electoral process. His attorney general, Elliot Richardson, in response to the Senate resolution calling for the action, announced on May 18, 1973, that he would appoint a long-time colleague of his, Harvard Law Professor Archibald Cox, as special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation.


On May 22, 1973, Nixon publicly admitted there was a White House cover-up of the Watergate affair. The Ervin Committee hearings began at this time. Scores of witnesses appeared, from McCord to Mitchell and including Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, Magruder, and others from the Nixon White House and the re-election committee. Many gave conflicting testimony regarding the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up efforts. Cox urged the Committee to cease its activities or at least to postpone them for a few months lest probable criminal prosecutions are adversely affected by these televised sessions (Woodward 26). One event turned the Watergate scandal into a legal and political drama that ended with the resignation of Nixon in August 1974. On May 24, 1974, Jaworski took the step of bypassing the Court of Appeals and asking the Supreme Court to grant certiorari under expedited review as permitted in Rule 20 of the Supreme Court’s Rules. The Court could have declined the invitation extended to it by the special prosecutor. As a matter of discretion, if not of the jurisdiction (which could have involved the separation of powers and the “political question” doctrines), the justices could have rejected the petition and allowed the Court of Appeals to hear the arguments (Genovese 234).

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In sum, only five times in the nation’s history had the Court granted expedited review under a Rule 20 protocol. Justice Brennan, who led the successful effort in the Court to hear the case in an expedient fashion, clearly underlined the validity of this early observation. So it was that about two years after the initial abortive effort by some plumbers to bug the Democratic National party headquarters in the Watergate complex, the members of the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case of the United States v. Nixon.

Works Cited

Genovese, M. A. The Lessons of Watergate: Thirty Years On. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34 (2004), 234.

Quirk, P. J. Coping with the Politics of Scandal. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 28 (1998), 2.

Roberts, R. Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America. The Historian, 66 (2004), 898.

Woodward, B. All the President’s Men. Pocket, 2005.

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