49 years ago today, America’s “long national nightmare” was over, in the words of recently inaugurated President Gerald Ford.
For those who are unfamiliar, it’s well worth your time to research. Essentially, the Nixon administration had an elaborate spying network that culminated in the burglary and wiretapping of the Watergate complex, the then-headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
At first, the White House distanced itself from the burglars, but connections kept cropping up: the burglars had phone numbers of prominent members of the Nixon administration, there was a slush money fund to keep the burglars quiet, and the Nixon White House recorded conversations between Nixon and others.
It’s worth noting that Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, sounded the alarm on Watergate very early on. Martha was one of the most popular women in America in the 1970s, having earned the nickname “the Mouth of the South” for her outspoken nature and penchant for late night chats with reporters, commenting on various issues of the day. She appeared on the popular sketch comedy show Laugh-In and on the cover of Time Magazine.
In June 1972, the Mitchells attended campaign events in California. John returned to D.C. and allegedly left Martha at their hotel, under the supervision of FBI agent Stephen King, who later became the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic under President Trump.
According to HISTORY (formerly The History Channel):
“While John was away, Martha read the news and saw photos of one of the captured burglars, James McCord. Martha recognized McCord since he was a former CIA officer and security consultant for the reelection campaign who had recently been Martha’s personal security guard.
Five days after the break-in, Martha called Helen Thomas, a reporter at United Press International who wrote about the events in her book Front Row at the White House. As Thomas writes, Martha told her that she would leave her husband if he didn’t get out of the “dirty business” of politics. Before Thomas could ask her more, she heard Martha saying “Get away. Get away,” and the phone line went dead.
Thomas called back but was told that Martha was “indisposed.” Concerned, Thomas then called John who nonchalantly replied, “That little sweetheart…I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts.”
According to Thomas, Martha alleged that King ripped the phone out of the wall, threw her on the floor and kicked her and was held hostage in the hotel for days, and at one point, five men held her down while a doctor injected her with a tranquilizer. Martha also told Thomas she received stitches in her hand.”
Martha was unintimidated, continuing to speak to reporters and raise the alarm about Watergate, despite a White House campaign to discredit her. In 1975, McCord declared that Martha was “forcibly held” while King denied “much, if not most” of his involvement in the incident.
Former Solicitor General Archibald Cox was named Watergate special prosecutor in May 1973. Nixon tried to keep the tapes secret, while Cox kept pressing for their release. On October 20th, Nixon told Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon turned to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork complied with Nixon’s request, but intended to resign shortly afterward. Richardson and Ruckelshaus convinced Bork to stay to give the Justice Department some stability. This event came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Nixon reluctantly appointed Leon Jaworski as the new Watergate special prosecutor. Jaworski continued the fight for the tapes. Nixon and his allies extensively cited the doctrine of executive privilege in their refusals, but the Supreme Court ruled 8–0 on July 24th, 1974 that Nixon needed to turn the tapes over to the House Judiciary Committee. Once that was done, Nixon’s fate was sealed. On the so-called “smoking gun” tape, Nixon and chief of staff H. R. Haldeman discussed how to prevent the FBI from continuing their investigation into Watergate.
After two and a half years, justice was served. 69 government officials were charged and 48 were found guilty. The president resigned.
As the United States is involved in another long national nightmare with Donald Trump being the subject of several indictments and investigations and President Joe Biden facing inquiries about his role in his son Hunter Biden’s quest for to sell the Biden name for money and influence, we should remember Watergate and its lessons.
Nixon assumed the presidency after a deeply divided 1960s. In ’68 alone, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Therefore, the American people were ready for peace and tranquility.
Nixon achieved great successes during his first term, including the formation of OSHA and a visit to communist China. In the 1972 presidential election, Nixon received 18 million more votes than Democratic nominee George McGovern, which is to this day “the widest margin of any U.S. presidential election.”
Naturally, it was political suicide to oppose Nixon soon after he achieved his wide mandate. But an ancient phrase comes to mind: “The wheels of justice move slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.”
Watergate took years and the collective work of journalists such as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Special Prosecutors Cox and Jaworski, FBI informant Deep Throat, Martha Mitchell and others to uncover the truth.
The man who enjoyed a commanding electoral victory in 1972 resigned in 1974. Republicans abandoned Nixon and the polarization of the ’60s and ’70s once the evidence against him grew overwhelming.
The American people rejected Nixon’s assertation that “when the president does it, it’s not illegal.” The chief executive and those who act in his or her name were and are not above the law. Our political system did not tolerate abuses of political authority during Watergate.
I don’t believe they will now.
A similar phenomenon is occurring with Trump. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger stood up to the former president during a January 2, 2021 phone call about Georgia’s election and has remained steadfast. Former Trump ally and governor of New Jersey Chris Christie just stated that Trump has moved into “crazy land” and is running to avoid prosecution. Former Vice President Mike Pence has repeated that he had “no right” to overturn the 2020 election and could be called to testify in the 2020 election trial.
To be fair, President Biden could suffer from the same fate if more evidence is uncovered that implicate him in a bribery scheme.
It’s fair to counter that powerful U.S. figures have gone unscathed from their wrongdoing since Watergate. The 2007–2008 financial crisis comes to mind, with only one banker sent to jail. Some argue that George W. Bush committed war crimes in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Our system isn’t perfect. Some who should be behind bars walk free. Yet, in terms of wielding political power, we have held those accountable in our past. To go against that now would undue generations of tradition.
It can be agony to shift through the events as they happen, but when the dust settles, we’ll all be glad that we endured the madness. Patience was key during Watergate and it is key now.