altForty years ago yesterday, the Watergate break-in changed the way many United States citizens viewed American political life and America itself. President Richard M. Nixon, his advisers and the “unindicted co-conspirators” could not have conceived the reverberations their actions would have on American culture. President Nixon became the first and only President to resign from office, and his political demise began with the Watergate break-in and its subsequent cover-up.

The Watergate Break-In

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democractic National Committee offices located in the Watergate office complex on the banks of the Potomac River. Investigations led to G. Gordon Liddy, a key member of Nixon’s re-election campaign, and then to the President himself as an accomplice to the act.  Nixon and Liddy responded by leveraging their political influence to attempt a large-scale cover up of their more aggressive and legally questionable campaign tactics.

The Investigation

Watergate-NixonAt Nixon’s urging, the FBI suspended its investigation into the break-in, but several journalists embraced the story and continued digging and searching. Most notably, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Postcontinued the search for information, acquiring and publicizing evidence of wiretapping, illegal use of campaign contributions, forged documents meant to embarrass rivals, and other political misdeeds.

Drip by drip, the legal case against President Nixon began to grow. When the Senate appointed a committee to further the investigation, many of Nixon’s top aides were called to testify. These hearings produced a bombshell: President Nixon had a vast store of  voice recordings of White House conversations. The substance of these conversations –and implications of the missing tapes — increased the pressure on Nixon and his administration.

In time, Nixon was accused of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and refusal to turn over evidence to Congress. As his support among Republican leaders in Congress collapsed and the reality of impeachment proceedings loomed, Nixon resigned his office on August 9, 1974.  His successor, President Gerald R. Ford, pardoned President Nixon in 1974.

The Lasting Effects

Much has been written about the influence of the Watergate break-in on our culture, politics and perception of media. Many changes were implemented to tighten financial reporting for administration officials and campaigns, while the investigative powers and resources of the government grew exponentially. Despite the measures taken to institute greater accountability, a pervasive mistrust of government officials began in the Watergate years. Many would argue it has never recovered.

Bibliography

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