Watergate: How a Name, and a Failed Break-In, Became a Symbol of Political Corruption

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Stan Busby with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we complete the story of the thirty-seventh president of the United States, Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon's first term as president ended with hope for complete American withdrawal from the fighting in Vietnam. Yet Americans still were very angry about the war and its effects on life at home. Paying for it was difficult. Inflation was high. Unemployment was high, too. Some political observers thought the president would not be elected to a second term. Nixon, however, was sure the American people would support him.

He did not campaign in the local primary elections before the Republican convention. Instead, in the winter and spring of 1972, he visited China, Canada, Iran, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

On June seventeenth, 1972, something happened in Washington, D.C. It was a small incident. But it would have a huge effect on the United States.

Five men broke into a center of the National Committee of the Democratic Party. The building was called the Watergate. That name would become a symbol of political crime in the nation's highest office.

At the time, the incident did not seem important. Police caught the criminals. Later, however, more was learned. The men had carried papers that linked them to top officials in the administration.

The question was: Did President Nixon know what was going on? He told reporters he was not involved. In time, though, the Watergate case would lead to a congressional investigation of the president.

For a while, the political conventions of the summer of 1972 pushed the story of the Watergate break-in out of the major news of the day.

The Democratic Party met and chose George McGovern as its candidate for president. McGovern was a senator from the state of South Dakota. The choice of the Republican Party was no surprise. Delegates re-nominated Richard Nixon.

McGovern attacked Nixon for his policies about Vietnam. McGovern's anger made many voters see him as an extremist.

Nixon won the election of 1972 by a huge popular vote. He would not be able to complete his second term, however. This was because Watergate would not go away.

Early in 1973, reporters found the evidence that linked the Watergate break-in to officials in the White House. The evidence also showed that the officials tried to use government agencies to hide the connection.

Pressure grew for a complete investigation. In April, President Nixon ordered the Justice Department to do this. A special prosecutor was named to lead the government's investigation.

A special Senate committee began its own investigation in May. A former White House lawyer provided the major evidence. By July, it was learned that President Nixon had secretly made tape recordings of some of his discussions and telephone calls. The Senate committee asked him for some of the tapes. Nixon refused. He said the president of the United States has a Constitutional right to keep such records private.

A federal judge ordered the president to surrender the tapes. Lawyers for the president took the case to the nation's highest court. The Supreme Court supported the decision of the lower court.

After that, pressure increased for Nixon to cooperate. In October, he offered to provide written versions of the most important parts of the tape recordings. The special prosecutor rejected the offer. So, Nixon ordered the head of the Justice Department to dismiss him. The Attorney General refused to do this, and resigned.

President Nixon had another political problem, in addition to Watergate. In late 1973, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign. A court had found Agnew guilty of violating tax laws.

President Nixon asked Gerald Ford to become the new vice president. Ford was a long-time member of Congress from the state of Michigan.

By that time, some members of Congress were talking about removing President Nixon from office. This is possible under American law if Congress finds that a president has done something criminal. Was Richard Nixon covering up important evidence in the case? Was he, in fact, guilty of wrongdoing?

In April 1974, Nixon surrendered some of his White House tape recordings. However, three important discussions on the tapes were missing. The Nixon administration explained. The tape machine had failed to record two of the discussions, it said. The third discussion had been destroyed accidentally. Many Americans did not believe these explanations.

Two months later, the Supreme Court ruled that a president can not hold back evidence in a criminal case. It said there is no presidential right of privacy in such a case.

A committee of the House of Representatives also reached an historic decision in July 1974. It proposed that the full House put the president on trial. If Richard Nixon were found guilty of crimes involved in the Watergate case, he would be removed from office.

Finally, Nixon surrendered the last of the documents. They appeared to provide proof that the president had ordered evidence in the Watergate case to be covered up.

The rights of citizens, as stated in the Constitution, are the basis of American democracy. Every president promises to protect and defend these Constitutional rights. During the congressional investigation of Watergate, lawmakers said that President Nixon had violated these rights.

They said he planned to delay and block the investigation of the Watergate break-in and other unlawful activities. They said he repeatedly misused government agencies in an effort to hide wrongdoing and to punish his critics. And they said he refused repeated orders to surrender papers and other materials as part of the investigation.

Richard Nixon's long struggle to remain in office was over. He spoke to the nation on August eighth.

RICHARD NIXON: "Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

Never before had a president of the United States resigned. And never before did the United States have a president who had not been elected. Gerald Ford had been appointed to the office of vice president. Now, he would replace Richard Nixon. On August ninth, 1974, he was sworn-in as the nation's thirty-eighth president.

Soon after becoming president, Gerald Ford made a surprise announcement. He pardoned Richard Nixon. Many Americans criticized Ford for doing this. But he believed he had good reasons.

Ford wanted to move ahead and deal with the other problems that faced the nation. He did not want Watergate to go on and on. The case did go on, however. Several top officials in the Nixon administration were tried, found guilty, and sent to prison.

The effects of the case went on, too. Watergate influenced government policy and public opinion for years.

For example, laws were passed to prevent an administration from using its power to punish opposition political groups. Intelligence agencies were forced to provide Congress with more information about their activities. And rules were approved to restrict the activities of public officials.

The American public, and especially the press, felt the effects of Watergate. Many citizens and reporters felt less able to believe their government. As one writer said, "Never again will we trust our public officials in quite the same way."

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Stan Busby. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.