Nixon’s Watergate Coverup Succeeded When It Mattered Most
Fifty years ago today Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate complex noticed suspicious activity around the Democratic National Committee offices and alerted the police. Five men were arrested in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972 and charged with attempted burglary and attempting to plant insects to intercept telephone communications. Within hours, a former Republican candidate for Congress named G. Gordon Liddy contacted one of President Nixon’s top aides to inform the White House that the arrested men were doing the dirty work of the President’s re-election campaign, and a cover-up massive started.
While Nixon’s publicist called the incident “a third-rate burglary attempt“, the president ordered White House Chief of Staff HR Haldeman to frustrate the FBI’s investigation into the financing of the burglary – an investigation that was sure to link the criminal conspirators to the organization of Nixon’s campaign, the President’s Reelection Committee.
White House machinations turned out to be a temporary solution. When investigators intensified their investigations and Americans began to pay serious attention to the fact that their commander-in-chief was a crook, the Nixon presidency crumbled. But the cover-up was a huge success in the fall of 1972 when, despite mounting evidence of Nixon’s misdeeds, voters easily re-elected the president.
The opportunity to hold the Republican president to account when it mattered most was lost in large part because of lethargy from prominent players in both major parties. They didn’t want to dwell too much on issues of political corruption in an election year when the Democratic Party was deeply divided, and political and media elites simply assumed that the powerful and vindictive Nixon could not be beaten.
Could things have turned out differently had there been a more aggressive push for accountability in the fall of 1972? It’s a real possibility. And the story offers a lesson to contemporary investigators about the transgressions of former President Donald Trump and his Republican associates. What the members of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol should recognize is this: being lax on accountability in an election year, whether in 1972 or 2022, robs voters of the clarity needed to make the right choices.
The truth that Nixon sought to obscure became apparent in the fall of 1972. Washington Post the reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had, in September and October of the same year, published vital stories linking the Watergate burglary to an ambitious spy program organized by the Nixon campaign. Even with this information, however, the investigation proceeded at a laborious pace and with a narrow agenda. Nixon and his aides had no trouble perpetuating the myth that the president was in no way associated with a scheme to sabotage not just Democrats, but democracy itself.
“The Watergate Affair” stories remind us“had little impact on the 1972 elections”.
But that might have been the case had a harder line been taken in the name of accountability.
If the focus had been on political corruption as evidence of wrongdoing mounted, and if Democratic and Republican insiders had put the country ahead of their election year machinations, American history might have taken a different twist. Unfortunately, attention was blurred, not only because of Republican cover-ups, but also because many top Democrats were reluctant to call the president at a time when prominent Democratic members of Congress, governors and senators were officially supporting a thug”Democrats for Nixoncampaign. Many of them simply thought, as Elizabeth Drew noted after the campaign, that “McGovern was not the legitimate candidate for the Democratic Party”.
At a time when Democrats should have been united in demanding accountability and investigators should have aggressively followed the trail that led to Nixon, the opposition party was in disarray. The progressive forces had succeeded in upset the old guard and the presidential nomination of South Dakota Senator George McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War liberal who has proposed to expand party commitment to economic, social and racial justice. The political establishment in both parties dismissed McGovern, even when the senator said in September that the scandal went “to the heart of this nation’s moral standards.”
In September 1972, after a federal grand jury indicted the Watergate burglars and two former White House aides to Nixon, but failed to take the next logical step, McGovern said“From first to last count, the federal grand jury’s indictment returned yesterday in the Democratic Bleaching Spell Wiretap Case.”
The Democratic presidential candidate went on to blame “this gross miscarriage of justice to have been ordered by the White House to spare them embarrassment in an election year.”
Focusing like a laser on the issues that had gone unresolved, McGovern explained that “the Nixon administration asks us to believe that the Watergate Five, plus two lowly White House agents, devised and carried out this scheme. seedy to spy on the Democratic Party. left alone, without any authority from above. The administration, with its total control of the grand jury, asks us to ignore the diversion of $114,000 of secret campaign funds into the hands of this political spy squad.
And he said, “The questions left unanswered by this grand jury are staggering”:
¶ “Who ordered this act of political espionage?
¶ “Who paid for it?
¶ “Who paid the $114,000 that went from Nixon’s campaign committee to the bank account of one of the arrested men, and paid the spies for their work?
¶ “Who received the memoranda of the tapped telephone conversation?
McGovern’s questions were specific. But they never really gained popularity. The fall campaign focused on the Democratic nominee’s missteps and Nixon’s supposed accomplishments – Watergate was just an afterthought. Although the Democrats controlled Congress, it was not until February 1973 that the Senate created a select committee to investigate Watergate, with the conservative Democrat from North Carolina. sam ervin like his chair.
In the meantime, Nixon continued his presidency as the triumphant winner of a landslide re-election victory. The narrative at the time went awry. Politicians and pundits, many of them Democrats, came to terms with the idea that nothing could have upset the Republican’s candidacy and that Watergate only caught up with Nixon after he was well into his second term.
What if responsibility had become a priority in 1972?
Without a doubt, McGovern’s campaign that year was flawed. He failed to control the convention that nominated him. He chose and then rejected Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate. He lost key union endorsements. Money was tight. And yet, had voters had some clarity on Watergate, it is not unreasonable to suggest that things might have been different.
If the process of accountability had accelerated, if it had taken root when it mattered most, it’s hard to imagine Nixon would have gotten his downfall. When I got to know McGovern in his later years, he told me what it was like for him to walk through airports during that time. As the Watergate investigation got underway and Nixon’s approval rating dipped to just 27% in the fall of 1973, he said, people stopped him to tell him they had always been on his side. Eventually, he couldn’t walk through the terminals without being stopped dozens of times by people who had assured the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate that they had voted for him.
The more people knew about Watergate, the more they wanted to believe they had voted for McGovern in 1972, the former candidate recalled. “But the math didn’t quite make sense,” he added, “because if everyone had voted for me, I would have been elected.”