What were the key features of the Watergate Scandal and what was the effect on American politics?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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On the evening of June 16, 1972 a security guard in the Watergate hotel noticed a piece of tape on a lock of a door to the Democratic Headquarters; his report set off a chain of events that would lead to the demise of Richard Milhous Nixon as president of the United States.  The tape had been placed on the door's lock as part of a plan to rattle Democratic campaign leaders and tarnish the reputation of the party.

Ironically, of course, the tarnish came not to the Democratic party, but to the Republican.  In efforts to cover-up their activities, John Ehrlichman, President and Chief of DomesticCouncil, and Bob Halderman, Chief of Staff, leaders in the operation, were fired.  Later, it would be revealed that Nixon did know about the break-in.

Initially the news media reported this incident as a minor story with little significance.  However, two reporters for The Washington Post, renowned as a pro-Democratic newspaper, Carl Berstein and Bob Woodard, began to dig deeper.  Their investigations were assisted by an anonymous informer who called himself "Deep Throat."  (In recent years this man has made his identity public; William Mark Felt, Sr.,an FBI agent.)  These investigations ripped open many cancerous sores in the Nixon presidency.  There were other clandestine operations in which Nixon had been involved including the infamous secretive tapes he made and the shoe box he had in a drawer containing "Hush Money" as well as his involvement with people of questionable reputations.

The Watergate Scandal is a classical tragedy.  For, President Nixon had had a very successful first term, having received worldwide recognition and respect in foreign affairs (he was good in these affairs as Vice-President under Eisenhower).  He opened trade with China, for one thing.  He was leading in the polls, and won the 1972 election by a large majority, so there was no need for him to have fretted about the Democratic Party.  But, because Nixon had led John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election by 11 points in the polls as late as September, a960, and then lost after the television debates, Richard Nixon developed his tragic flaw:  He became paranoid.  As a result, he had his various clandestine activities.  Like any tragic hero, Nixon also had his great fall, having to resign from office and turn over the reigns to the Speaker of the House, Gerald Ford, since the Vice-President Spiro Agnew was charged with nefarious deeds and had to resign.

After Gerald Ford's appointment as President, the Republican party was in shambles, public confidence in the office of president was certainly lost, and, as a result, legislation was passed restricting some of the privileges of this office.  In a backlash against the Republicans, the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter--as inexperienced in foreign affairs as great as Nixon was--was elected mainly because the American public did not forgive Nixon's actions, nor did they trust the Republicans.  Voting was a "knee-jerk reaction."  Some view the past election of a Democratic candidate in 2008 as analogous to this same "knee-jerk reaction" and cynicism toward the Republicans in the person of President George W. Bush.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Watergate Scandal revealed much about America and American politics.  Essentially, the scandal, itself, concerned President Nixon's desire to consolidate power to protect himself from all possible threats, except his own paranoia.  In the election of 1972, Nixon, the Republican, enjoyed immense popularity.  There was little to indicate that he would have lost to the Democratic candidate, George McGovern.  Nixon was receiving much of the credit for the Moon Landing in '69, triangulating agreements with both China and Russia, and Vietnam was coming to a close.  While the economy was a bit unsettled, he was going to win quite decisively.  However, afraid of the Democrats and wanting to know what their plans were, Nixon and his aides ordered five "plumbers" (White House Workers) to break into the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel/ Apartment complex in Washington.  The reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, engaged in an intense investigative reporting sequence and discovered layer after layer of the office of the President misusing power in the form of issuing bribes, known as "Hush Money," establishing a secret campaign against enemies of the President, inappropriate fund raising techniques, and extensive coverups to shield the public from knowing what the President was doing, what he know, and who else understood what was happening.  Nixon won the '72 election by a landslide, but the reporting continued and soon, people began to take notice.  Congress did, as well.  In 1973, Congress initiated nationally televised hearings against members of the President's Cabinet and, the President, himself.  These national hearings, initiated by the Watergate Affair, became known as one term, "Watergate."  The Senate subcommittee that held the hearings probed deeper and deeper, and through testimony, it became known that the President was secretly recording conversations in the Oval Office which would yield more information about what the President knew and what he was doing.  Congress, the Attorney General, and then the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes.  Nixon refused, prompting a Constitutional Crisis of an exponential degree.  In July of 1974, the House initiated impeachment against the President, who ended up resigning in early August of that year to avoid further disgrace.

The political lessons of Watergate were abundant.  The first and foremost was that the media and journalists possessed the ability to literally take down a sitting President.  The Watergate affair created the media as sort of the "Fourth Branch" that could check governmental power.  The second lesson was that Watergate proved that no one, not even the President of the United States, was above the law of the Constitution.  Finally, a lesson of Watergate was that the Executive Branch must conduct itself in a manner that reflects transparency and openness.  Failure to do so will raise credibility questions about it.  Either it must conduct itself in this manner or revert to more effective clandestine means to conceal its true intent.  In other words, Watergate proved that the Executive Branch should either "play it straight" or "do a better job of cheating."

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