The Watergate Scandal

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Can you explain the Watergate Scandal in simple terms?

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The Watergate Scandal involved members of President Nixon's re-election committee and White House officials who illegally attempted to gather information from the Democratic National Committee. The scandal, uncovered in 1972, led to Nixon's resignation in 1974 after his attempts to cover up the crime were revealed. Investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played critical roles in linking the break-ins to the government, highlighting the importance of investigative journalism and leading to numerous legal and political reforms.

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In as simple terms as possible, the Watergate scandal was an attempt by members of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President and other White House officials to gather information from the Democratic National Committee through illegal means. The conspirators enlisted a team of burglars headed by a former FBI agent named Alfred Baldwin to wiretap phones at the DNC's headquarters at the Watergate Complex.

The first infiltration was successful, but the team of burglars were caught after attempting to break in again for maintenance. While it is commonly accepted that President Nixon had no knowledge of the wiretapping before the break-in, he did attempt to stop the truth from being revealed. Nixon's famous quote, "I am not a crook" is a response to Watergate allegations that led to his impeachment. Investigative Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are considered heroes of their trade for their role in linking the break-ins to upper levels of government.

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What was the importance of the Watergate scandal? 

The “Watergate scandal” is a nickname applied to the detection, prosecution, and conviction of Republican Party officials, senior White House staff, and Cabinet heads for illegally obtaining information about their political opponents and trying to cover up the crimes. The immediately related events spanned two years, from June 1972, when burglars targeted the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, through August 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office. Not only was he the only president who ever resigned, but in succeeding him, Gerald Ford became the first president never to have run for the office, as he had become vice-president after serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives. The lasting effects are still felt, and the legacy can be grouped into five main categories.

First, the outcome reaffirmed the continued importance of the separation and balance of powers, as the Executive branch was not able to dictate the workings of government and protect President Nixon.

A second important area is the attention paid to the process after it concluded. This includes an investigation into possible excesses of government surveillance and other information-gathering that would have violated individual rights.

In addition, the revelations of the investigation and the follow-up prompted a wide range of legal reforms, designed to ensure that such a situation event never recurred.

A fourth key legacy is the increasing importance of investigative journalism, including the elevated stature of such reports to celebrity status. More people probably know the names of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein than those of the government officials who went to prison, and know the title of their book more than its allusion to the earlier fictional expose of corruption, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

Today as well, the “gate” suffix is routinely applied to any political scandal, such as “Iran-Contragate” of the 1980s and the 2015 New England Patriots Deflategate.

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What was the importance of the Watergate scandal? 

The major importance of the Watergate scandal in the short term was that it caused the resignation of President Nixon.  This was the only time that an American President has ever had to leave office.  

In the long term, the importance of the scandal was much greater.  It has had at least two major impacts.  First, it has reduced the trust that Americans have for their government.  It has made us much more suspicious of government and has helped lead to our current negative attitudes towards government.  Second, it helped to make the political atmosphere much more partisan.  Each party is always trying to catch the other in scandals that it can use to harass the other party and try to prevent it from accomplishing its political agenda.

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