Watergate refers to the political scandal that broke in 1972 and forced Richard M. Nixon to resign the presidency two years later. On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C., police arrested five men who had burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment and office complex. From then until August 9, 1974, when President Nixon resigned, journalistic, congressional, and judicial investigations progressively revealed illegal campaign practices, “dirty tricks” in campaigning, presidential abuses of power in the use of illegal wire-tapping, Internal Revenue Service pressure and other harassments of alleged political “enemies,” as well as the presidentially directed cover-up of these and other acts.
During these years the Watergate scandal preoccupied Nixon, his closest aides, and ultimately the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public. It precipitated several showdowns between the executive and the other branches of government and is therefore regarded as one of the more important constitutional crises in American history.
The press played a role in revealing the misdeeds of the Nixon administration, and the press itself became an issue in the unfolding crisis. At first, journalists regarded the break-in as a campaign tactic too stupid and risky to have been authorized by any significant figure in the Republican hierarchy. Of more than four hundred Washington correspondents, at most fifteen worked fulltime on Watergate in the half-year between the break-in and the 1972 presidential election. But the Washington Post pursued the story and linked the burglars to the highest officials in the Nixon reelection campaign.
The Washington Post's coverage interested few other media outlets. That changed in March 1973 when James McCord, one of the Watergate burglars, revealed that the burglars had perjured themselves under pressure. Soon President Nixon's two closest advisers were implicated in covering up the burglary's connection to the White House and were forced to resign.
The Senate held riveting, televised hearings in the summer of 1973. Nixon's presidential counsel, John Dean, who had also been forced to resign, provided an astonishingly detailed account of his meetings with the president, during which strategies for covering up Watergate had been discussed. Then it was revealed that conversations in the White House's Oval Office were usually tape-recorded and that the evidence existed to verify Dean's damning accusations. The president's lawyers revealed a tape recording from just six days after the burglary that established Nixon's involvement in the cover-up, to the dismay of even loyal Republican defenders. As a result President Nixon resigned from office and Gerald Ford became president.
The Watergate scandal helped establish the Washington Post's national reputation as a serious national newspaper and a rival to the New York Times. When the Post's Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their dramatic account of the early coverage of the scandal, All the President's Men, a book later turned into a feature film, Watergate became the symbol of the power of the press in American society. For journalists it became the definitive modern symbol of how essential the press is to democracy and the justification for investigative reporting. For some critics Watergate became a symbol of the dangers of a media establishment grown too liberal and too autonomous, as well as a dangerous scandal-and-investigation-centered mode of politics in Washington, D.C.
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