Beleaguered presidents

ANTHONY BUTLER: Reflections on Watergate scandal 50 years on

Aspects of former US president Richard Nixon’s undoing remain instructive for political leaders to this day

First published in Business Day 17 June 2022

It isn’t the misdemeanour that gets you, or even the cover-up. It’s the cover-up of the cover-up.

Fifty years ago, an explosive episode in the history of liberal democratic politics had quiet beginnings. At its centre was US president Richard Nixon, an enigmatic political leader facing an electoral test to secure a second term in power. The national campaign headquarters of his opponents, the Democratic National Party, were located in the Watergate Building in Washington DC.

Soon after midnight on June 17 1972 Frank Wills, a 24-year old security guard in the office complex, noticed tape placed over the latches on doors that connected an underground parking garage to internal staircases. Following protocol, Wills called the police. Plainclothes officers arrived and made their way to the Democrats’ offices on the sixth floor of the building, where they discovered — and apprehended — five men. 

The “Watergate burglars” carried lock picks, a short-wave receiver, cameras and other nefarious items. Within months a grand jury would indict them for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. Journalists at the Washington Post publicised links between the burglars and Nixon’s re-election campaign. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that every member of the break-in team was indirectly connected to Nixon’s campaign or to senior White House staff. A slow fuse had been lit, which would ultimately lead to the president’s destruction.

Aspects of the Watergate scandal remain instructive for political leaders half a century later. Alarmingly from their point of view, a president does not need to be the direct instigator of villainous activities for them to pose a threat to his political future. Nixon asked his chief of staff a few days after the break in: “Who was the asshole that did that?”

More promisingly for the political elite, events in the Watergate Building had no impact on Nixon’s immediate electoral fortunes. As Nixon himself told his “dirty tricks” fixer, Charles Colson: “Nothing loses an election … it’s going to be forgotten … you know, who the hell’s going to keep it alive?” Nixon indeed won re-election on November 7 1972, securing an astonishing 60% of the popular vote. Rarely before had the disconnect between the preoccupations of commentators and the immediate realities of political power been so starkly demonstrated.

Though the role of newspapers in bringing down Nixon has been widely celebrated, most media outlets were tepid, or even hostile to the investigations. Presidential spokespersons found it easy to dismiss events as “a third-rate burglary”, to claim “internal investigations” had been undertaken, and to “deny categorically” any White House involvement. Nixon feigned shock and fired compromised officials while promising to “get to the bottom” of the matter.

The president used state institutions he could influence directly, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, to frustrate the investigations of those he could not, notably the FBI. Members of Nixon’s inner team were initially willing to take the fall to protect their president. The cover-up of the early days began to unravel, but Watergate demonstrated that it can take a lot to remove a sitting president. Certain institutions in the criminal justice system and news media had to resist political pressure. The Senate had to be willing to question the head of the executive, and to set up a special investigation into events that dismantled Nixon’s defences.

Senate hearings revealed the existence of a voice-activated taping system in the oval office, and the supreme court — rebutting claims of “executive privilege” — ruled that the tapes should be released.

This documentary material helped bury Nixon’s plausible deniability strategy and confirmed that the president had tried to deflect investigations by government agencies. He was forced to resign from office on August 9 1974.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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