Sunday, June 17,
marks the 40th anniversary of the most consequential political scandal
in U.S. history, the Watergate scandal. What began as a bungled break-in
at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington
D.C. eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as president and
continues to resonate today as a cautionary tale of political ambition,
money and the abuse of power.
Start of a scandal
It began in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972. Five men working
for President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign were arrested trying
to break in to Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex.
Listen to Jim Malone's report
Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward covered the
story and found that the Watergate break-in was only part of an
elaborate program launched by the Nixon re-election campaign to
undermine the president’s political opponents.
“We named people in specific acts of participation in a criminal
conspiracy essentially to destroy the free electoral system we have in
this country to spy and sabotage on the Democrats,” said Woodward.
Criminal and congressional investigations followed the Post reporting
and found a massive cover-up orchestrated by the Nixon campaign and the
White House, right up to the president himself.
During Senate hearings in 1973, it came to light that Nixon recorded his
conversations in the White House, and those tapes eventually helped to
prove Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up.
The most dramatic thing
VOA’s David Dyar covered the Watergate scandal as a young reporter for
United Press International, including President Nixon’s decision to
order the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973.
“When I was hearing all this unfold in the White House briefing room,
there was a sense among many there that something truly historic had
happened and that the president was putting himself above the law and
that the entire constitutional fabric of the justice system in the
country was being challenged," said Dyar. "It was the most dramatic
thing I have ever witnessed firsthand as a reporter.”
Once the White House tapes showed Nixon’s complicity in the cover-up,
the president lost his base of Republican Party support in Congress and
he announced his resignation in August of 1974.
“I have never been a quitter," said Nixon. "To leave office before my
term is completely is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as
president I must put the interests of America first.”
"Long national nightmare is over"
Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, was sworn in after Nixon left and
moved quickly to heal a divided country.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," said Ford.
"Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and
not of men. Here, the people rule.”
American University historian Allan Lichtman says Watergate remains the
most serious attempt by a president and his staff to undermine the
was a widespread conspiracy," Lichtman said. "Several dozen people went
to jail, including other very high officials of the [Nixon] campaign and
of the Nixon administration. So a lot of people who should have known
much better got sucked into this terrible scandal and it is a tragedy of
Shakespearean proportions because in many ways Richard Nixon did a lot
for the country.”
"Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them"
Before he left the White House, Nixon gave an emotional speech to
staffers and then concluded with what struck many as an ironic piece of
“Always remember, others may hate you," he said. "But those who hate you
don’t win unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself.”
Some 40 years later, the Watergate scandal is seen not only as a victory
for the democratic process but also as a defining example of the
importance of a free press in a democratic society.