Watergate: Democracy in Darkness

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Few presidencies in American history have been as blemished by scandal and ignominy as President Richard Nixon’s. At the hands of two Washington Post journalists, the corruption that held together the future of his administration was slowly unravelled. Over the course of two years of dogged pursuit, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed what many today believe to be the most influential piece of journalism in modern history.

By 1972, President Nixon’s first four-year term had been dominated by foreign policy successes, as he attempted to achieve détente with Soviet Russia and China, accompanied by his plans to slow extricate the US from the Vietnam War. All the while, the economy had continued its strong performance.

The upcoming Presidential Election campaign seemed something of a formality. In June 1972, five months before the election, Nixon held a commanding 19-point lead over his Democratic challenger, Senator George McGovern, a lead was never in danger. This made the actions of Nixon’s campaign, run by the Committee to Re-elect the President (abbreviated as the CRP, but mocked as CREEP), that much stranger.

On June 17 1972, a burglary was discovered at the Democratic National Headquarters’ Watergate complex. Five men had broken in to leave bugs in the office phones, but were discovered by a security guard and apprehended on site. These men, it would later be discovered, had been directed in the conspiracy by the CRP itself.

With the support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, journalists Woodward and Bernstein were set upon discovering the greatest coverup in American politics. Carl Bernstein, known as the resident ‘hippie’ of the paper, had eschewed the usual collegiate path and was recruited by the Post for his brilliant work for local papers. However, from when he joined at 21 in 1966 until the onset of the Watergate Scandal in 1972, he was still only tasked with reporting on local news stories. Bob Woodward, a war veteran and graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, was the more traditional of the two. Prior to Watergate, he had been covering the Washington DC Metropolitan Police for eight months.

It was in this capacity that Woodward was immediately tasked with reporting on the break-in. While other journalists flocked to the crime scene itself, he sat quietly in the back of the court arraignment of the five burglars.

During their arraignment, one of the five burglars stated that he had previously worked at an unspecified government agency. When questioned further, he responded quietly that he was a former CIA agent. Woodward, from the back of the courtroom, realised he had stumbled into a story far larger than a simple burglary.

After Woodward returned and started writing his front-page article, he learnt that Bernstein had been jointly assigned: the expectation was that this story would not be done tonight. The partnership did not begin harmoniously: Bernstein was erratic and disorganised, Woodward meticulous and pedantic. However, their respective styles complemented each other’s, with Bernstein usually tasked with writing the first drafts and Woodward soon following with a more refined version – though they were still known to fight for fifteen minutes over a single word.

The pair’s first joint article led the Post‘s Monday edition, asserting that the former CIA agent and Watergate burglar, James McCord, had been on the payroll of, and worked directly for, the CRP. Indeed, it later emerged CRP was paying the legal fees of the five burglars. In order to mitigate the damage, director of the CRP and former Attorney General, John Mitchell, made a statement to the press in which he stated McCord was simply a glorified security guard and denounced the Post for attempting to damage President Nixon’s campaign. This was the Nixon White House’s first lie.

The next day, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered another big break. The reporters learned that in the address books of two of the Watergate burglars was one man working at the White House: Howard Hunt. The pair discovered Hunt worked directly under Charles Colson, special counsel and closest advisor to the President – also known as his ‘hatchet man’. While they felt confident of the connection, they felt it was tenuous enough that it needed confirmation before they could publish.

The man who provided such confirmation many times, as well as entirely new breaks in the story, was Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI – pseudonym ‘Deep Throat’. Over the course of uncovering Watergate’s true extent, Felt communicated directly and exclusively with Woodward, revealing intimate details of the case and confirming theories. When Woodward would want to make contact with Felt, he would move a plant pot from one side of his balcony to the other; and on the rare occasion Felt would make contact, he would do so by circling page 20 of Woodward’s morning copy of The New York Times. Their relationship was legendary, and the story would have been impossible without Felt’s intelligence.

At this point, the true scope of the story was becoming clear, and it drew interest from other newspapers. The New York Times, in particular, took the story from a different angle, focusing on the potential of Cuban involvement through Miami (four of the five burglars were Cuban). Not to be outdone, Bernstein took the first flight out to Miami to view the burglars’ subpoenaed bank records. Subsequently, Bernstein discovered that one had been paid $25,000 by Nixon’s campaign. Through a string of unrelenting phone calls, Bernstein learned that the $25,000 cheque had been given directly to Maurice Stans, the CRP’s committee chair.

This was the most damning evidence yet of the money trail. “We’ve never had a story like this. Just never,” said the Post‘s editor upon learning of their discovery of the cheque. The subsequent article revealing these findings was the most important yet in demonstrating the concrete connection between the Watergate burglars and the CRP.

As a result of their investigation, the Federal Elections Division, a small agency, only a few months old, tasked with regulating campaign finances, began to investigate illegal activities within the Nixon campaign.

Even with this, the Post reporters were not satisfied. They suspected that the Watergate burglary was only the tip of the corruption iceberg. After weeks of mostly fruitless work, the pair received a call alleging that the Nixon Campaign had been offering vast financial rewards for disrupting Democratic campaigns. Woodward and Bernstein’s theory was finally confirmed.

On October 10, they published that the Nixon Committee to Re-Elect the President had systematically weaponised political spying and sabotage in order to obstruct Democratic political activities. In very short increments, the Post was edging closer and closer to the President himself being directly involved, and the closer they got the more Woodward and Bernstein felt they had a duty to break the story.

However, they soon suffered a major setback. A source within the CRP, indicted to testify in the case, had said the Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, had directly approved spying on Democratic campaigns – but he was not testifying in this statement. The allegations about Haldeman, unbeknownst to Woodward and Bernstein, were untrue – he was involved in the cover-up, but not the sabotage itself – yet they were still published.

The Nixon administration seized the opportunity to criticise the Post and accusing them of committing journalistic malpractice to delegitimise all claims the paper had made regarding Watergate. This was a disaster; everything Woodward and Bernstein had uncovered looked set to be lost because of the publication of one small, fairly inconsequential detail in a much larger picture of political corruption.

Two weeks later on 9 November 1972, Nixon was elected President, carrying 49 states and 520 electoral college votes. There was never any indication in the polling the public was set to change its mind as a result of the emerging Watergate scandal, but it was a further demoralising blow at an already low point for the Post journalists.

Nonetheless, justice was eventually served, and the journalists were vindicated with the trial of the five burglars, beginning on 8 January 1973. From this point on, Woodward and Bernstein’s role in bringing the Nixon administration down became more limited, as judicial processes took over. However, the revelations of the trial eroded the President’s integrity. The most damning evidence to emerge was a presentencing letter from the burglar McCord, in which he confessed that defendants had been pressured to perjure themselves to not implicate those higher up.

Now in April, with the trial having exposed the Nixon administration’s malfeasance, Nixon announced the resignation of his two closest aides and confidants, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, as well as Attorney General Kleindienst.

At the same time, the US Senate had established and funded a Special Committee to investigate Watergate. When the Senate Special Committee’s hearings, broadcast to the nation daily, commenced in May, the tone around the case shifted from disbelief in the allegations to mistrusting the increasingly futile defences of the administration.

The most consequential of these revelations occurred on July 16, as a White House aide testified to the Committee that he knew of a network of listening devices installed in the Oval Office, recording every conversation which took place. This bombshell set off a torrent of judicial curiosity, with the tapes being immediately subpoenaed by the Committee. Nixon refused to hand over the tapes, arguing the Senate had no right to infringe on his executive authority.

On October 20, a day which has since become known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire the lead investigator. However, Richardson resigned in protest; so too did his deputy and many other members of the Justice Department. Nixon’s authority seemed to have gone once and for all, his authority so marred by corruption that it was no longer respected.

Three days later, Nixon agreed to surrender the tapes, heavily redacted, but was eventually ordered to turn over the unadulterated versions. One of these tapes became known as the ‘smoking gun’, unequivocally proving Nixon’s obstruction of justice through a conversation with Haldeman, in which the two conspire to bar the FBI from further investigating the Watergate break-in for fear it may go “in some directions we don’t want it to go”.

Now, armed with the tapes, the ‘smoking gun’ and the money trail uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein, the House Judiciary Committee launched an impeachment inquiry. The Committee recommended three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of congress. The articles reached Congress with bipartisan support. Finally, on the evening of 8 August 1973, President Nixon acknowledged the futility of his position. He delivered his final address to the American people, wherein he declared that he felt he could no longer serve the Office of the President of the United States and thus resigned.

The role of Woodward and Bernstein, though clearly diminished in the latter part of the process that led to Nixon’s resignation, was fundamental. They not only found fresh evidence pertaining to the case, but did so as journalists, exposing in granular detail the story of Presidential corruption as it unfolded.

Discovering the truth was a long and arduous process, and it damaged faith in the US’s institutions. However, the response to the lies of Watergate, once uncovered, was not coloured by political allegiance but motivated by a desire to promote justice and protect democracy – ideals which politicians today would do well to remember.

Bernstein, C., Woodward, B., 1974. All the Presidents Men. Simon & Schuster.

Graff, G.M., 2022. Watergate: a New History. Simon & Schuster.