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by William H. Benson

June 17, 1999 

     The “long national nightmare” began on June 17, 1972 as a bungled third-rate burglary into the Democratic National Party’s sixth floor suite at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.  Captured in the act was the Plumbers Gang–James McCord and four others who were following  orders given by White House aides, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.  Eventually, Liddy, Hunt, and McCord went to prison, and a spokesman for the White House said there “was absolutely no evidence that others were involved” in either the break-in or the coverup.

     How much did President Nixon and his White House staff really know about the break-in, and more importantly, the coverup?  That became the question asked by Congress and the American public for months.  Nixon lied repeatedly.  (The words still sound today so cruel, and yet it accurately described his actions.)  He claimed he knew nothing of the break-in nor of the coverup until many months afterwords.  But two reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post with Ben Bradlee’s and Katherine Graham’s approval kept “following the money” and listening to an unidentified White House source, code named “Deep Throat”, and finally the truth came out.

     On June 25, 1973, one year after the break-in, John Dean, a former White House counsel, testified to the Senate Committee that President Nixon had participated in the Watergate coverup for as long as eight months, and he had warned Nixon that covering up the truth was “a cancer growing on the Presidency.”  Dean implicated Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Nixon’s righthand men, as the two prime orchestrators of the coverup.  Three weeks later Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office.  Congress suspected that those tapes would constitute incriminating evidence, ie. a “smoking gun.”

     For a year Nixon stubbornly refused to surrender the actual tapes, choosing instead to submit an edited version without the missing 18 1/2 minutes of a key conversation Nixon had had with Haldeman.  In a session with reporters, Nixon lashed out, “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook.  Well, I’m not a crook!”  On July 30, 1974 the Supreme Court by an 8 to 0 vote said Nixon must turn over the actual tapes.

     He did so, and the tapes proved that six days after the break-in he had ordered a halt to the investigation–an act constituting obstruction of justice.  Knowing that he had no support in either the House nor in the Senate to avoid impeachment, on the evening of August 8, he resigned the Presidency, and six weeks later President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, a highly debatable act.

     The Founding Fathers in the Constitution stated that “high crimes and misdemeanors” were impeachable offenses by a President, and it was around this phrase that much of Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999 revolved.  Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers failed to clearly define those terms.  However, Congress believed in 1974 that what Nixon and his collegues had done fell within that category.  But what really disgusted the American public was Watergate’s shabbiness: leaving payoff money in phone booths, the filthy language Nixon used in the Oval Office, the stonewalling, the hypocritical lying, and the bullheaded refusal to release the tapes. 

     Will there be other Watergates?  There have been, and there will be.  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  If freedom and the Bill of Rights are to have any meaning and be retained by this nation’s citizenry, the public must continually prepare themselves to face with resolve and willpower repeated Watergates–“long national nighmares”.