Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 22nd January 2018 | Manchester, UK

The Watergate Scandal: Can You Ever Really Trust Political Officials?

The Watergate scandal was a major political catastrophe, which created a constitutional crisis in America. It not only removed the trust between the American public and the political system, it also had ramifications across the world. Hence, why major crises now carry the suffix ‘-gate’, such as in the recent political fiasco featuring Andrew Mitchell, known as Plebgate.

This infamous scandal emerged under Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon, a Republican, was elected as President in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. His re-election in 1972 was a landslide victory, as secured over 60 percent of popular vote; however this popularity wouldn’t last for very long.

On the 17th of June 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington D.C.  These men were linked to Nixon’s administration by the Washington Post, who received information from William Mark Felt, Senior. Felt was associate director of the FBI.  The whistle-blowers identity remained a secret until 2005, instead being referred to as Deep Throat in the media.

There began an investigation by Congress into the illegal activities of Nixon’s administration.  It came to light that Nixon had a secret taping system. Nixon refused to provide the tapes when asked by court, claiming executive privilege and instead providing edited transcripts of conversations. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president had to release the tapes to government investigators, and Nixon eventually complied with the demands.  The investigation exposed the bugging of political opponents offices, the harassment of political activists by the FBI and the CIA, along with other ‘dirty tricks’.

The courts investigation led to 69 high-ranking government officials being arrested, with 48 being convicted. The audiotapes further revealed that the President had attempted to cover up the scandal after the break-in took place.  This forced Nixon to resign on the 9th August 1974, or be faced with impeachment.  Nixon’s resignation was carried live on radio and television, and the president used this opportunity to attempt to reverse the growing public dissent, as focused on his foreign policy success.  President Ford granted Nixon a full pardon, which was detrimental to Ford’s presidency and a major factor in his defeat in 1976. The entire handling of the scandal left a stain on the American political and legal system.

In 1977 Nixon agreed to an exclusive interview by British journalist David Frost. Frost posed hard hitting and direct questions, which exposed Nixon’s full involvement with the scandal. Nixon was forced to formally apologise, but his reputation was tarnished beyond repair.  The Watergate scandal exposed the corrupt nature that can exist within politics, and has led to public suspicion of political actors not just in the USA but across the world.

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