By Jean Griffith
Special to The Globe
Little did security guard Frank Wills know that he would change the course of American history.
During the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, Wills arrested five men in the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel and office complex.
Eventually, seven men were cuffed, including former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA operatives E. Howard Hunt and James McCord. The Watergate Seven had planted eavesdropping devices on the phones of the DNC. Soon the FBI assumed responsibility for the investigation. This was the first in a chain of events that would become the greatest scandal in American political history. But to understand Watergate, you first must understand America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Watergate can be traced to the day President Richard M. Nixon gave his daughter Tricia’s hand in marriage in a White House wedding ceremony. On that same day, June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the first installment of a series of sensational front page stories based on a top secret study of America’s military role in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon Papers had been leaked to Times reporter Neil Sheehan by Daniel Ellsberg in February of 1971.
Nixon immediately ordered the Justice Department to seek a court injunction to stop the presses; The Times sought to defend its freedom of the press.
In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. U.S upheld the Times’ right to continue publishing the classified document. Nixon was furious. In the words of aide Charles Colson, the president stated emphatically: “I don’t give a damn how it is done. I want to know who is behind this, and I want the most complete investigation that can be conducted ...whatever the cost.”
Unfortunately for Nixon, it would cost him his presidency.
The motive for the Watergate break-in at DNC headquarters was apparently political espionage, to mine every detail of the Democrats’ strategy and perhaps to uncover information that would discredit the Democratic party. Given Nixon’s poll numbers, the Watergate burglary now seems ludicrous. But secrecy often cultivates a culture of paranoia, and so it was in the Nixon White House.
With a grand jury collecting evidence and a new Watergate revelation appearing on the front pages of the Washington Post daily, by February 1973, the Senate had seen enough. It voted to create the Senate Select Committee to investigate the unethical and illegal conduct during the 1972 presidential campaign. Beginning May 17, 1973, before a television audience the Senate Watergate Committee questioned and cross-examined White House chief-of-staff H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, former Attorney General John Mitchell, Colson and John Dean. The intense atmosphere and mood in the Senate chamber made palpable by Republican Sen. Howard Baker’s penetrating question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
But the earth-shaking bombshell of them all occurred when Republican minority counsel Fred Thompson questioned presidential aide Alexander Butterfield about the existence of a secret reel-to-reel recording system in the Oval Office. Butterfield confirmed its existence. Sensing the possibility of obtaining valuable evidence, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, along with the Senate Select Committee, issued subpoenas for the president’s recorded conversations.
Nixon, initially claiming executive privilege, eventually agreed to type and release summaries of the tapes allowing only Mississippi Sen. John Stennis to listen to the recordings and confirm the typed transcripts’ authenticity. Cox would have none of it. On Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon ordered his newly appointed Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Rather than do Nixon’s bidding, Richardson resigned.
The event is known to political historians as the “Saturday Night Massacre” after which Nixon would never regain the confidence of not only the American public but conservative Republicans as well. Now in bunker mode, Nixon replaced Cox with tough Houston attorney Leon Jaworski, who followed in the example of his predecessor in issuing a second subpoena for all the tapes.
It would be the legal struggle for possession of the tapes that would force Nixon to resign.
On July 24, 1974, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled the president must comply with the special prosecutor’s subpoena and turn over the tapes.
Known as “the Smoking Gun,” the tape recorded conversation dated June 23, 1971, just days after the Watergate break-in proved Nixon was guilty of obstruction of justice when he urged Haldeman to order the Central Intelligence Agency to obstruct the FBI’s investigation.
Watergate, in retrospect, is a paean to the freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
It is the bedrock of our civil liberties in a democracy as a free people. Watergate is also a tribute to the system of checks and balances devised by the Founding Fathers. It worked just as they had envisioned it would during the Watergate affair.
Most importantly, the scandal reflects the corrupting influences of political power and mammon, which dwarfed even the corruption of Warren G. Harding.
Nixon would have been wise to have remembered the words of President Harry S. Truman who once said: “I never infringe a traffic rule. I never exercise the prerogatives which I sometimes have of going through red lights. I never exercise the prerogative of taking advantage of my position. I believe, first, that I am a citizen, and that as a citizen I ought to obey the laws first and foremost.”
In Truman’s way of thinking, no man, not even the president of the United States is above the law.