Whenever a political scandal rolls around the media these days always seems to compare it to Watergate, either by adding the suffix of “-Gate” to the scandal’s name or asking if this is “President X’s Watergate?” Watergate today apparently has become an almost generic term among political commentators, to mean “really bad naughty awful scandal.” Ergo it seemed appropriate to point out that in reality whatever the current scandal de jour is actually, most likely, no where near as bad as Watergate. Let us fly back to 1972 and when President Richard Nixon began his progress through a scandal of devastating political ramifications.
The Watergate scandal was named for the Watergate Hotel and Office complex, located in Washington D.C., offices that housed the 1972 Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters and key center point in planning the Democratic parties campaign against Richard Nixon’s run for a second term. Nixon, and his eager supporters, felt that an extra edge was needed in the campaign so several break-ins were undertaken to put wiretaps onto the DNC phones to steal campaign intelligence. The scandal really kicked off on 17 June 1972 when on their fourth attempt/second actual break-in, the burglary team was caught in the act and arrested. Now this is probably the first key aspect of this scandal that makes Watergate unique – it was an effort by a serving President to undermine his political opponents through direct, illegal information gathering, dirty tricks abound in politics but breaking in to steal information to undermine the opposition campaign was considered well beyond acceptable limits. (Not to mention it was also actually illegal.)
Nixon won the election in 1972 but from that break-in up through 1974 the Nixon administration was plagued by the Watergate scandal, the Congressional investigation into the situation involved an increasing number of key officials in the Executive Branch in the scandal, individuals who knew about the break-in and had facilitated it or approved it. In the end it reached to Nixon himself, with an appointed Special Prosecutor demanding details on what Nixon had known about the Watergate burglary. Specifically the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, wanted access to tapes Nixon had kept of everything that happened in his White House, every meeting, every discussion, a complete transcription of Nixon’s activities. Nixon refused and attempted to dodge this request through a series of increasingly desperate legal maneuvers. But it was Archibald Cox’s insistence on getting the tapes (or transcriptions of them by a neutral third party) that kicked the Watergate scandal into high gear.
Cox (pictured above) pushed Nixon to the point that Nixon decided to take more…direct action in dealing with the problem. Nixon on 2o October 1973 ordered the Attorney General of the United States, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Now this caused a small problem in that, although Cox worked for the Justice Department, under Richardson, Richardson had also promised the Congress of the United States he would not fire Cox and undermined the ability of Cox to investigate the President. (For those curious the legal reason that Nixon wanted Cox fired was “insubordination” – Cox was insubordinate for refusing to obey the President’s order to stop issuing subpoenas for Nixon’s tapes.) Richardson refused to fire Cox and resigned in the face of being given an order he could not follow and, in doing so, being insubordinate to Nixon.
With Richardson (pictured above) having resigned the office of Attorney General, Nixon then turned to his second in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus (pictured below) to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused the order and resigned as well, moving Nixon to the next person in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, third in line at the Justice Department and ordered him to fire Cox. Bork agreed and fired Cox.
Bork was then appointed by Nixon to the position of acting Attorney General, complete with a swearing in ceremony, and Nixon settled back in the White House feeling he had asserted himself successfully. What he actually did was provoke a full blown Constitutional crisis – when the Congress reconvened on Monday and the rest of the Justice system came back into session on Monday all hell broke loose. Bork (pictured below) was removed from his new office, protesting he’d been following orders, Cox was re-instated (along with the others affected by this), and Congress moved towards seriously considering impeaching Nixon. The nation as a whole responded as well, Republican and Democrat Representatives and Senators had a flood of protest from thousands of citizens, on both sides of the political spectrum, demanding Nixon be impeached for such a gross violation of the principles of the separation of powers in the Constitution. (The Executive Branch firing the Special Prosecutor appointed by the Congress was seen by most, from scholars to the masses, as a serious breach of the principles of the Constitution.)
For Nixon the party was over – his rash action on Saturday (hence forth referred to as the “Saturday Night Massacre”) lead to his resignation on 9 August 1974. Political pressure and the successful shift in Congress to both Republicans and Democrats feeling that impeachment was necessary lead to Nixon bowing out of office voluntarily. (He was subsequently pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.)
So in all this what makes the Watergate scandal such a scale topper of a political scandal? First off the blatantly illegal effort to steal information to help ensure an election victory, but second, and more critically, the scandal leading to a genuine Constitutional crisis that enraged the nation. Nixon’s actions on that Saturday night were so beyond the boundaries that people across the political spectrum began to seriously wonder if Nixon was still fit to serve as President. Laws were changed after Nixon left office to plug this particular crisis but Nixon remains one of the few modern Presidents to spark a major crisis with the other branches of government on this scale.
Which probably means that whatever is currently on the airwaves – from a corruption scandal to a gaff – is actually not another Watergate.
Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Watergate Scandal, Wikipedia entry on the Saturday Night Massacre, PBS special on the Saturday Night Massacre/Information page on it, New York Times article on the Saturday Night Massacre.
Post Credits Bonus – the organization that backed the break-ins was known as the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP officially by referred to as Creep even by Nixon and pals.)