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Large Cast of Characters Shaped Plot of Watergate


This week's news about the identity of Deep Throat, a former FBI official, reminded that one anonymous source helped to uncover details of the Watergate scandal. But Watergate was not simply the result of that one source speaking to a couple of reporters. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, there were many players and many twists in the plot that mesmerized this nation in the 1970s.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

The greatest constitutional crisis in modern American history emerged against a backdrop of tensions over the Vietnam War, which had ripped the country apart. Early in 1972, polls showed President Nixon in danger of losing the November election. That motivated the Committee to Re-elect the President to launch a political espionage campaign that included bugging the office of the Democratic National Committee. On June 17th, 1972, five burglars were caught in the Watergate office of the DNC chairman. It was quickly learned that one, James McCord, worked for President Nixon's re-election committee. The story made big news, including on NPR's "All Things Considered."

(Soundbite of "All Things Considered")

Unidentified Woman: ...or what the chairman of the Democratic National Committee has called `political espionage,' the attempt to bug his party's headquarters in Washington over the weekend.

YDSTIE: Had the White House at that moment come clean, Richard Nixon might have saved his presidency and his reputation, but instead, the president participated in a cover-up that ultimately led to the conviction of more than 30 government and campaign officials, including his closest advisers, former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the president's number-two adviser, John Ehrlichman, and White House counsel John Dean. Here's Dean speaking before the Senate Watergate Committee in the summer of 1973.

(Soundbite of Senate Watergate Committee hearing)

Mr. JOHN DEAN (White House Counsel): The cover-up was in operation when I returned to my office on Monday the 19th, and it just became an instant way of life and I participated in it and engaged in these activities along with the others.

YDSTIE: As part of the cover-up, the White House paid hush money to the burglars using a secret campaign slush fund. But in March of 1973 one of the burglars, Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, threatened to break his silence if he wasn't given another $120,000. That's when Dean went to the president to warn him of the growing danger.

(Soundbite of Watergate conversation)

Mr. DEAN: What I had hoped to do in this conversation was to have the president tell me we had to end the matter now. I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

YDSTIE: Nixon and Dean discussed whether another million dollars could be raised to keep the burglars quiet. Nixon told Dean, quote, "We could get that. I know where it could be gotten." Dean's testimony that summer before the Senate Watergate Committee electrified the nation. But it was Dean's word against the president's until a White House recording technician, Alexander Butterfield, came before the committee and was questioned by committee counsel Fred Thompson, who later became a senator himself.

(Soundbite of Senate Watergate Committee hearing)

Mr. FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

Mr. ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir.

YDSTIE: The revelation of taped Oval Office conversations set up a showdown between Nixon and the special prosecutor appointed to investigate Watergate, Archibald Cox, who demanded that the tapes be released. Nixon refused and, on a Saturday night on October 1973, he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned rather than do so. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Cox, so Nixon fired Ruckelshaus. Finally, the number-three man at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, did the deed. In a news conference following the incident, Richardson warned that the stakes were rising.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Mr. ELLIOT RICHARDSON (Former US Attorney General): The rest is for the American people to judge. On the fairness with which you do so may well rest with the future well-being and security of our beloved country.

YDSTIE: What came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre was a turning point for the public; even Nixon supporters began to fall away. The president was forced to name another special prosecutor, Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski. Jaworski continued to pursue the tapes. Finally, in the summer of 1974, the case went to the Supreme Court. On July 24th the court, including three Nixon appointees, decided unanimously that the tapes must be released. Nixon backed down and agreed to comply. Before the end of the same month, the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment. It accused President Richard M. Nixon of obstruction of justice. About a week later the White House released transcripts of an Oval Office conversation that had taken place just days after the Watergate burglary. The exchange between Nixon and H.R. Haldeman revealed the president had tried to get the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating Watergate. With that revelation public support for Nixon collapsed. A group of Republican senators went to the White House to tell him he had next to no support in the Senate. Nixon announced his resignation the next day.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President RICHARD M. NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first.

YDSTIE: Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president and immediately reassured America that its long national nightmare was over. He later gave Nixon a full pardon. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: If you'd like to find brief profiles of many people who figured prominently in the Watergate scandal, go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.
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