A Complicated President
There have been many scandals throughout American presidential history, but only one has ever brought down a presidency. To understand Watergate, it is helpful to have an understanding of the culture of the administration, and of the psyche of the man himself. Richard M. Nixon was a secretive man who did not tolerate criticism well, who engaged in numerous acts of duplicity, who kept lists of enemies, and who used the power of the presidency to seek petty acts of revenge on those enemies. As early as the 1968 campaign Nixon was scheming about Vietnam. Just as the Democrats were gaining in the polls following Johnson's halting of the bombing of North Vietnam and news of a possible peace deal, Nixon set out to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations by privately assuring the South Vietnamese military rulers a better deal from him than they would get from Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. The South Vietnamese junta withdrew from the talks on the eve of the election, ending the peace initiative and helping Nixon to squeak out a marginal victory. During Nixon's first term he approved a secret bombing mission in Cambodia, without even consulting or informing congress, and he fought tooth and nail to prevent the New York Times from publishing the infamous Pentagon Papers (described below). Most striking, however, was Nixon's strategy for how to deal with the enemies that he saw everywhere. Nixon sent Vice President Spiro Agnew on the circuit to blast the media, protestors, and intellectuals who criticized the Vietnam War and Nixon's policies. Agnew spewed out alliterate insults such as "pusillanimous pussyfooters", "nattering nabobs of negativism", and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history". He once described a group of opponents as "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." The Washington "Plumbers"
But Nixon and his aides also discussed ways in which the President could use subterfuge to undermine his enemies and revenge perceived injustices. This became especially important to the President in 1972, when he was determined to win the election more comfortably than he had in 1968. Nixon had once approved the illegal break-in concept first floated by White House aide Tom Huston, even though Huston specifically told the president it was tantamount to burglary. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover refused to cooperate. (Hoover then died in May, 1972, and L. Patrick Gray was appointed acting director in his place). Nixon was especially infuriated by leaks in his administration, and none was bigger than that which became known as the Pentagon Papers, a sensitive Pentagon document that traced the often illicit history of America's involvement in Vietnam. Nixon tried to block publication of the document, and lost. When Nixon discovered that military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had been the source of the leak, he told White House Counsel Charles Colson, "Do whatever has to be done to stop these leaks and prevent further unauthorized disclosures; I don't want to be told why it can't be done...I don't want excuses; I want results. I want it done, whatever the cost." Colson and yet another Nixon aide, John Erlichmann, created a group whose task it was to stop any further leaks. These White House Plumbers, as they came to be known, were tasked with finding a way to get revenge on Ellsberg. Two of the so-called plumbers were ex-CIA officer Howard Hunt, and ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. The plumbers tried to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in Los Angeles to get Ellsberg's confidential treatment records, but the raid was completely botched. In addition to Hunt and Liddy, several other future Watergate burglars were part of this raid. 1972
The Watergate Break-In
June 16, 1972: In room 214 of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., seven men gathered to finalize their plans to break in to the Democratic National Committee's...