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Watergate Break-In Ignited Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History

Nixon: In June 1972, five burglars were caught in Democratic National Committee office. Arrests led to a president's downfall and a lasting distrust of politicians.

June 08, 1997|HARRY F. ROSENTHAL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — In all of American history there never was a political scandal like it. All the elements were there, from penny-ante dirty tricks--charging $200 worth of pizza to political opponents--to corruption at the highest level of the government, a president committing impeachable crimes.

The scandal known as Watergate, after the building in which it began, launched a trend in the tagging of far lesser official mis-

deeds: Koreagate, Travelgate, Iran-

gate and Filegate.

Watergate started on June 17, 1972, as a Keystone Kops caper. Five men dressed in suits and ties were surprised in the act of rifling the office of the Democratic National Committee, their hands sheathed in surgical gloves and their pockets stuffed with sequentially numbered $100 bills.

It climaxed with the Aug. 9, 1974, resignation in disgrace of Republican Richard M. Nixon from the highest office in the land, prison terms for 25 men, and a distrust of government that never dissipated.

Strangely, 25 years later nobody is sure what the burglars were looking for. What is known is they were attempting to repair a telephone bug they had installed three weeks before, and they were rifling through files, photographing some.

Watergate had many faces but at the core it was a subversion of the Constitution by the president who had sworn to protect it. The lawbreaking oozed through the White House to functionaries inside and outside the administration. Men who entered government with a zeal to serve the people ended up serving prison time instead. This was a men's scandal; women were largely absent.

Watergate began with money, but that wasn't its evil. "No man or no woman came into this administration and left it with more of this world's goods than when he came in," Nixon said just before he boarded the helicopter that started his journey to exile.

He was right. Underlying Watergate was the arrogance of power and the desire to hang onto it at all costs. The surprise was that so many were willing to sacrifice principle on that altar.

If it meant breaking the law or "stonewalling"--one of the terms popularized during Watergate--it was done. If it meant lies or bribery or coercion, so be it. If it meant turning on a friend to fashion a sacrificial lamb, too bad.

Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was deemed by a grand jury to be a co-conspirator. But he escaped impeachment by resigning and avoided indictment through a pardon. His successor, Gerald Ford, felt the country had endured enough--and that sentiment may have cost him the presidency in the 1976 election, when Jimmy Carter won with a promise to the American people that he would never lie to them.

*

The burglars could have been assembled by a novelist.

They worked under the direction of G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI man and White House operative who by then was finance counsel at Nixon's Committee for the Re-election of the President, commonly known as CREEP. Liddy had grandiose schemes for an espionage operation, including use of prostitutes, bugging telephones, mugging opponents and kidnappings. He wanted $1 million for it; he got $250,000.

His top aide was E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA spy who had participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and who had already written 42 spy novels.

Four of the burglars were part of Miami's Cuban exile community and veterans of that invasion. They became known collectively as "the Cubans," although one of them--Frank Sturgis--was not Cuban. The fifth burglar, James W. McCord, a 20-year CIA technician, was in charge of CREEP's security.

Investigators quickly established their connection to the president's reelection committee. The FBI traced the $100 bills to $89,000 in CREEP money deposited in one burglar's bank account via a Mexican connection.

Throughout all of this, there were official denials of involvement from the White House--where press secretary Ron Ziegler called the affair "a third-rate burglary"--and from former Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, who headed the reelection committee.

"I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in," Nixon told the nation in a speech Aug. 15, 1973. "I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities; I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics. That was and is the simple truth."

*

But it wasn't simple, and it wasn't truth.

Only six days after the break-in, on June 23, 1972, Nixon had assented to a plan suggested by chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to derail the FBI's investigation by claiming that it would interfere with a CIA operation. This conversation, when it became public, was the final straw in persuading Nixon to resign two years later.

The cover-up was brought on--indirectly, if not directly--by Nixon's paranoia that he could lose his reelection effort to Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. Nixon could not foresee his landslide victory; only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia went for McGovern.

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