The View From 1776

Watergate: An Historical Review

Jeff Lukens reprises the Watergate affair and the underlying reality of power politics.

Reflections on the Watergate Tragedy
By Jeff Lukens

To understand Watergate, we need to understand the times in which Richard Nixon was president. Nixon was the only president of the 20th Century to face an unyielding and organized resistance to a war. LBJ had handed him a war without end in Vietnam, and consequently, great unrest at home. Washington was regularly filled with thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of protesters. The counterculture movement, born in those days, was bent on overturning the very foundations of American life.

Skillful at old-time politics, Nixon was ill-equipped to oppose the guerilla war being waged against him. Wiretaps and IRS audits were no match for a force whose foot soldiers worshiped sex, drugs and rock and roll. Many called Nixon paranoid because he saw himself surrounded by enemies. But his enemies were real, and they were waiting for the opportunity to ruin him.

He had been a target for the Left ever since the Alger Hiss case in 1948. The worst thing that anyone can do to the press and the liberal establishment in Washington is to prove that they were wrong, and that was exactly what Nixon, as a young congressman, had done. Hiss was a sophisticated career State Department diplomat, but he was also a communist spy. The case also begged the question on whether or not there was a communist influence in Washington. With the help of Whittaker Chambers, Nixon exposed Hiss. But Hiss was one of them, the liberal establishment, and they never forgot it.

Consequently, the rules of discretion and respect the media and Congress applied to previous presidents did not apply to Nixon. In his position, he knew he should have been careful not to do anything wrong. Instead of accepting the double standard and holding himself to a higher level, he took for granted he would be treated in the same way as they treated Kennedy and Johnson. That was his first mistake.

The Origins of Watergate

The road to Watergate began in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers case. Nixon was outraged by Daniel Ellsberg’s leaks of classified information about the Vietnam War to The New York Times. When he tried to block the press from publishing any more of the story, the liberal Burger Court ignored the law and ruled against him. One senator even went as far as to enter the documents into the Congressional Record. It was truly outrageous. Nixon’s anger at the reckless disregard of national security by many people was quite understandable, but his response to it was not.

He pushed White House staffers to do something to stop the leaks. He pushed them so hard, in fact, that he effectively forced them to act outside the law. The “Plumbers” were formed and soon afterwards broke into in the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist hoping to gain embarrassing personal information on Ellsberg in which to discredit him.

That was over the line. Warrantless break-ins of any sort are unacceptable. We halfway expect this sort of behavior from the agents of the Left, but not from Republicans. Republicans, and conservatives overall, must call to a higher standard.

But why would Nixon risk so much to gain so little? Well, for one, leaks threatened to blow the confidentiality of his prize project, the secret diplomacy of Henry Kissinger. But there was more to it than that. Like so much else in Washington in those days, emotions overruled rationality. Nixon was apparently striking back in a fit of rage.

He should have known that break-ins would eventually cause something like Watergate. Although he denied it, there is a high probability that Nixon had prior knowledge of the Ellsberg break-in and may have even ordered it. At the very least, he was responsible for the actions of his subordinates. He compromised himself under pressure, and set a precedent that lead to his political destruction.

Break-in at the DNC

Even now, we can only speculate on the possible motive for the Watergate break-in. It has been alleged that Nixon’s wanted to know what the Democrats knew about a $100,000 donation from Howard Hughes to Bebe Rebozo, who passed the money through his Florida bank to the Nixon reelection campaign. Hughes Aircraft Company had many government contracts, and it was good business to have the president on your side.

Nixon may have been worried that the Chairman of the DNC, Larry O’Brien, would pull an October Surprise by revealing the payoffs from Hughes. Nixon’s ties to Hughes had hurt him in his losing 1960 and 1962 campaigns, and he did not want it to happen again.

The Watergate break-in likely came about by Nixon telling Charles Colson to find out what O’Brien knew about Hughes. Colson assigned the job to Howard Hunt who with Gordon Liddy used campaign resources to repeat the precedent of the earlier Ellsberg break-in.

There were two break-ins at the DNC Headquarters at the Watergate complex. The first break-in occurred on May 28, 1972. When the bugs that were planted then failed to yield substantive information, Hunt and Liddy planned a second break-in three weeks later. It was the second break-in that made history. That break-in likely failed because Democratic Party operatives may have suspected it was coming and were ready for it. It is doubtful, however, that Nixon knew the details of the plan.

At the time, wiretaps were legal, so we can take no issue with them. After news of the story broke, Nixon was just trying to contain the political damage. One falsehood lead to another and soon it became a cover-up. Legally and morally, a cover-up of a break-in was wrong, and on a practical level, it was almost sure to fail. He and his people had taken many foolish risks, and too many people knew too much. When faced with jail time, many of them decided to save themselves no matter the cost to anyone else. This was especially the case with John Dean.

The Tapes

Nixon meant the tapes to be a private record of his presidency that he could later use for his memoirs. Many hours of the tape involve Nixon with his aides brainstorming and searching for ideas, both good and bad, to solve the problems they faced.

Years later, Nixon privately admitted it was a mistake not to destroy the tapes. Without the tapes, the evidence on Nixon would have been circumstantial and gone nowhere. Rather than serving as personal recollections, his own words becoming the basis for his fall.

Nixon also admitted later that he shouldn’t have discussed, or even thought about, cover-ups or hush money. While his opponents were quick to point out that he had discussed such things, they ignored that he rejected them as wrong a few sentences later. Although he discussed possible obstruction of the FBI investigation by the CIA in the “Smoking Gun” tape, no obstruction actually occurred.

Revenge Politics

As a political force against communism, and resolute in his convictions, to the liberal establishment, Nixon had to be brought down. The political firestorm that resulted was a coming together of many political factions. Congress, the press, the intelligence community and the federal bureaucracy all had reasons to see that Nixon fell. With the tapes available as evidence, Nixon gave his opponents the sword they needed to take him down, and they did.

Those who were after Nixon for Watergate had been after him for a long time. Watergate was just the pretext. They sought to prosecute him as aggressively as he had prosecuted Hiss and the Vietnam War. The relentless deluge of accusations hurled at Nixon day after day, both true and false, ultimately undercut his ability to govern. While the Ervin Senate Select Committee on Watergate held center stage, cuts in South Vietnamese aid, and limitations on what our military response could be, were being quietly slipped through congress.

In his 1990 book, In the Arena, Nixon writes:

“We remember as the Watergate period was also a concerted political vendetta by my opponents. Anyone who knows the workings of hardball politics knows that the smoke screen of false accusations - the myths of Watergate - were not at all accidental. In this respect, Watergate was not a morality play - a battle between good guys in white and bad guys in black - but rather a political struggle. The baseless and highly sensationalistic charges, blatant double standards, the party-line votes in congressional investigating committees, and the unwillingness of my adversaries and the media to look into parallel wrongdoing within Democratic campaigns, all should tip off the causal observer that the opposition was pursuing not only justice but also political advantage . . . When a balanced historical appraisal emerges, the partisan political dimension of the investigation and prosecution will stand out as the feature of the period . . . The smoke screen of false accusations magnified tenfold the public’s perception and outrage over the wrongdoing that actually occurred.”

A National Tragedy

After two years of Watergate paralysis, the nation braced for months of impeachment in the House and trial before the Senate. Maybe he could have survived by a vote or two in the Senate, maybe not. But they had marginalized Nixon, and the nation needed a full-time President. His final service as president was to resign rather than put the nation through more anguish.

Nixon, once a brilliant politician, would always be seen as a man shattered by his own determination to succeed. The Watergate scandal severely disappointed his supporters. I was one of them. It also portrayed Nixon as an invalid force in American politics, which was not true.

He had been correct about his opposition to communism. He had been correct about Alger Hiss and how to end the Vietnam War. But what did that matter to the Left? Watergate was the result of Vietnam, and the collapse of South Vietnam was the result of Watergate. The upheaval that followed his presidency in Southeast Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere proved that his policies had been correct all along.

Nixon was devastated in an epic calamity partly of his own making, and partly from a liberal assault on a successful politician who represented traditional American values. It is an assault that continues to this day. Conservative politicians might earn the animosity of those who oppose them, but their methods and politics must always be above reproach to avoid a fate similar to that of Richard Nixon.

Jeff Lukens is a Featured Writer for The New Media Journal and a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets. He can be contacted at