The political scandal that became known as Watergate was much more than a botched break-in at Democratic headquarters by people acting on behalf of President Nixon. In many ways it represents the zenith of an increase in executive power that had been under way for decades as the White House assumed more power over the governance of the United States. However, under Nixon the power of the Presidency went beyond accepted norms and took on an imperial feel as he sought to undermine challenges to his administration. The reasons for these transgressions can be partly explained by the social unrest at the time, which led Nixon to believe that America was under attack from within. But, arguably, they are more firmly rooted in the psyche of Nixon himself and his immediate advisers. In seeing opposition to his policies as a threat to national security, Nixon demonstrated his over-inflated opinions of self-worth and his resorting to underhand dealings illustrated a suspicious state of mind.
Nixon can aptly be described as an imperial President. He was not reserved in using the full powers of his office in pursuit of his goals. He had a strained relationship with Congress and is remembered as one of the most uncooperative Presidents for his blocking of Congressional hearings by refusing access to records or personnel. He also used the power of impounding funds from programmes more frequently than any of his forebears. This is exemplified best by his impounding half the funding in the Clean Water Act of 1972 after Congress had overturned his veto on the legislation.
Nixon was clearly willing to take strong action with Congress but it was his use of dirty tricks against his perceived enemies that led to his fall. The leaking of information on Vietnam to the New York Times in 1971 by an administration official had led to the formation of a team of `plumbers’ to fix such leaks. The use of surveillance and an illegal break-in to seize medical records with which to discredit the official duly followed. Nixon’s reaction to the leaking of the `Pentagon Papers’ set a precedent that was to culminate in Watergate.
For the 1972 elections Nixon created a separate campaign group entitled the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Given the absence of an effective opposition this appears to have been a move based on fear rather than reality. With a fund of millions, much of which allegedly came from illegal contributions, they worked to secure Nixon’s re-election in November. The break-in at the Watergate building occurred on 17 June 1972. Five men were apprehended while adjusting eavesdropping equipment in the Democratic Party headquarters. It was not headline news as a White House connection was not apparent and no one outside of Nixon’s circle could have guessed what the story would become.
Over the coming months investigations by Congress, the federal judiciary and the Washington Post found evidence and testimony that linked the burglars to CREEP. It transpired that Nixon had not known of the break-in but had authorised a cover-up, which involved the manipulation and obstruction of the CIA and FBI. By July 1974 time was running out for Nixon. Tape-recordings existed of every conversation held within the Oval Office but Nixon had resisted their release by claiming executive privilege. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court demanded that they be handed over. The House voted three formal articles of impeachment against Nixon for the cover-up and abuse of office.
The most obvious consequence of the Watergate scandal was the resignation of President Nixon. It transpired that the Nixon administration had repeatedly resorted to dirty tricks and what can be deemed abuses of office, of which the break-in and the cover-up represented the final acts. Nixon did everything in his power and more besides to save his Presidency but the weight of evidence was far too great. He vowed to fight before the Senate, who, according to the Constitution, were to deliver the verdict on impeachment. But his closest aides knew the game was up and abandoned him. The Secretary of Defense went so far as to order military commanders to ignore Nixon’s orders. The President realised that the Senate would vote a verdict of guilty and so on 8 August 1974 he announced to America and the world that he would resign. In his remaining twenty years, Nixon managed to regain a degree of respectability but failed to offer the nation an apology for his wrongdoings.
However, the most significant impact of Watergate was the damage that it did to the office of the Presidency itself rather than just the incumbent who had created the scandal. Congress had already acknowledged its intent to rein in the imperial Presidency in diplomatic and military affairs, largely due to Nixon’s behaviour in Southeast Asia. In the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation and with the White House’s standing at an all time low, it was to be expected that the legislature would seek to enhance its position. It approached its role of overseer of the executive branch with renewed zeal. For example, the Senate launched a thorough investigation into the activities of the CIA both at home and abroad.
Bob Woodward, the journalist and writer whose name is the one most closely associated with Watergate after Nixon’s, devoted a whole book to the impact of Watergate in 1999. In Shadow, Woodward examined how Presidents and executive agencies since 1974 have faced closer scrutiny from both Congress and the media. The Iran-Contra scandal during Reagan’s second term and the never-ending investigations into Bill Clinton’s financial and personal relationships that led to his impeachment, are the most notable episodes, but they can be viewed as part of a growing trend of increased Congressional scrutiny in the aftermath of Watergate. Although it should be borne in mind that Woodward had a vested interest in emphasising the importance of Watergate he nevertheless presents a thorough and compelling case for this increase in scrutiny and its source. The confirmation that even a President could be a crook forced Congress to increase its own surveillance of the executive. Woodward’s analysis is certainly closer to the mark than the view expressed in Richard Nixon’s autobiography that Watergate would prove to be only a footnote in history.
The fallout from Watergate was not confined within Washington DC’s Beltway. It spread out across the nation invoking even greater levels of cynicism and mistrust of politicians within the American people. The November 1974 mid-term elections illustrated the public’s estrangement from politics, with voter turnout falling to only 38 per cent. This should, however, be balanced against the fact that Americans have always held a certain amount of contempt for politics and Washington DC; it could be said that their existing views were simply confirmed by Watergate. The Nixon White House years did more than just amplify disillusionment with politicians; the nation’s view of itself was affected as well. The bicentennial celebrations of the United States in 1976 were, untypically for the Americans, a somewhat muted affair, which represented the self-doubt that had entered the nation’s psyche, as it could see itself falling short of the noble values from which it was born. But above all else, it was the devaluing of America’s most prized institution, the Presidency, in the eyes of the people as well as the other branches of government that was the real legacy of Watergate.
It is clear that Watergate had a huge impact upon the United States in various ways and that its consequences in the short term, Nixon’s resignation and the elevation of Gerald Ford to the White House, are equalled by the longer-term damage that it did to the Presidency. Can it be said that anything positive arose from Watergate? The suffix `gate’ subsequently entered the English language for scandals involving politicians (Irangate, Monicagate) thus ensuring the episode will remain in public consciousness. And at least America could console itself that the Constitution’s checks and balances were demonstrated to be working well in the end. After all an incumbent President, the most powerful man in the world, had been brought down by a system designed nearly 200 years previously. James Madison would have approved.