Watergate: An enduring memory of my youth

Watergate:  An enduring memory of my youth

All democracy is a work in progress.  For better or worse and despite being under constant threat of compromise since its founding, the grand American experiment has met the demands and overcome multiple imposed stresses as well as all manner of intense strain up to and including civil war.  In my lifetime that radical idea of democratically elected men leading a constitutional republic has survived egregious insult in grand fashion.  I fondly recall those halcyon days of my youth during which it was emphatically demonstrated via the mechanisms of government that the United States is a nation of laws and not of men or women.  Saturday, June 17th was the forty-fifth anniversary of the arrest of five men for the unlawful breaking and entering of the Democratic National Committee headquarters housed in the Watergate Hotel and Office Building located in the District of Columbia’s Foggy Bottom section.  When the facts regarding this “third-rate burglary” began to trickle out as to the dynamics between the arrested perpetrators and their ties to members of the Nixon Administration, the nation was confronted with a constitutional crisis unlike none seen since.

Watergate and the White House:  The Third-Rate Burglary That Toppled a President

Excerpt:  <<A little after 2 a.m. on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard in Washington’s Watergate complex, noticed a strip of adhesive tape across a lock on a basement door.

Suspecting a burglary, Wills phoned the police. A squad of plainclothesmen that happened to be nearby was ordered to respond to the call. A search of the darkened building began. It led to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor.

Guns drawn, the policemen entered – and took by surprise five men loaded down with burglar tools, cameras, electronic “bugging” equipment and walkie-talkie radios. Lookouts posted in a hotel across the street to radio a warning hadn’t realized that the watchman had called the cops.

The burglars caught in the act were James W. McCord Jr., Bernard L. Barker, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio R. Martinez and Virgilio R. Gonzalez. A shakedown disclosed about $6,000 in cash among the five men – more than half of it in consecutively numbered $100 bills. Detectives took over.

They discovered that McCord, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative and an electronics expert, was security chief for the Nixon campaign organization, the Committee for the Re-election of the President. Further investigation brought arrests of two men who had been members of a secret investigative unit at the White House, known as “the plumbers.”

Those men were G. Gordon Liddy, counsel to the Re-election Committee’s finance branch, and E. Howard Hunt Jr. Liddy had been, among other things, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hunt was a former CIA agent. They were accused of masterminding the burglary.

 What was the burglary all about? The men under arrest were silent. It was not until many months later that witnesses began telling the story. When it finally unfolded, it went back to a series of meetings in the office of John N. Mitchell, the Attorney General – held at a time when Mitchell was preparing to leave the Nixon Cabinet and take over as campaign director.>>

The Watergate scandal stands out and remains one of the greatest and enduring memories of my own youth.  I vividly remember just over a year after the fact, in the summer of 1973, listening intently to John Dean’s testimony on network TV in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday.  It was the latest news sensation in a year when we saw the return of our POWs from Hanoi in February, the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from South Vietnam at the end of March and the retirement of the military draft and move to the all-volunteer armed forces at the end of June.  Mr. Dean ultimately did eventually plead guilty to obstruction of justice but in exchange for his extremely damaging testimony managed to stay out of actual prison.  I was a junior high school student during this time and was between the eighth and ninth grade.  My grandfather, who was about as much of a Nixon-hating yellow dog Democrat as ever there were and a chronic malcontent under normal conditions, was continually agitated by what he was watching daily in his living room.  Every other weekend when I went with my parents to visit him and my grandmother in Fort Smith we would always find him in front of the TV either watching the latest development of the scandal or reading about it in the local tabloid.  Regardless, he never seemed to have dearth of jagged edged opinion bitingly critical of the “maggot bag in the White House.”  My relationship with my paternal grandfather was less than rosy on several issues but in the end I must give credit where credit is due, he was absolutely right about Nixon.  He accurately predicted that the President’s questionable dealings and abuses, some petty, some blatant, would be exposed and if reelected in 1972 that he would not finish his second term.  As it turned out to anyone who was aware of the extremes Nixon would and could go to in order to assure his own reelection, the end result was not really all that surprising.  I also remember that so many who considered themselves part of that “great silent majority” grew ever more quiet with the revealing of more and more mounting evidence that the President was not only involved but directly responsible for covering up a crime.  Not even a direct appeal to the American people could change the ugly facts of the case.  The Congressional wheels of justice, despite ample attempts to stop them, final ginned out a result of a full investigation and the news was not favorable for the 37th President.  To many Cold War era heads of state, particularly our Cold War adversaries, the very concept that something as utterly stupid as Watergate could bring down the leader of a superpower was alien to its core.  This is in fact the essence of a government whose constitution begins with “WE THE PEOPLE.”  When a U.S. President resigned his office because the likelihood of facing criminal prosecution rendered his leadership ineffective, the principle that the American nation being one of laws and not of men was held up as a shining example to the entire World.

Richard Nixon stands out as a tragic figure in the history of the American nation.  He heretofore represents probably the worst example available of a public figure who lost the battle for control of his own insecurities.  In the end it cost him and the nation what was otherwise a very historically significant Presidency.  In the end, the soul of the concept that is America did in fact triumph because it underscored the principle that not even the highest elected official in the land is not exempt from the law that governs all.  Looking forward, the memory of this bright shining example of authentic Americanism should fill us all with a sense of hope.

1 Comment

  1. Cheryl Reese
    Jun 19, 2017

    There seem to be a number of Trump supporters who believe that President Trump is exempt from the laws of the land. I hope we can prove them wrong before he does too much damage.