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The "Third rate Burglary" that Brought Down a President


Carl in his D.C. office with a picture of Archibald Cox
"I came to Washington with a purpose-to investigate and prosecute the president of the United States." With this statement, Carl Feldbaum began his compelling story about Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. As a member of the special prosecution force against Nixon, Carl had some interesting thoughts to share.

It was a great way for me to learn more about Watergate, a word that most people have heard, but many people don't really understand. So before we get to Carl's part of history, here's a brief account of the events that caused the scandal:

It all started in June of 1972 when five burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex (outside of D.C.) with wiretapping and photo equipment. Soon it was reported that one of the burglars-James McCord-had been a CIA employee and was at the time working for the Nixon re-election campaign.

Watergate: a funny lookin' hotel that went down in history
Hmmm, let's see...Nixon is a Republican and during a campaign year, someone on his team is breaking into the Democratic headquarters? Seems a bit fishy doesn't it? Well it was. We know now that these were the beginnings of a major scandal, despite the fact that at the time, the White House denied any connection. They said that it was no more than a "third-rate burglary." Most of the public didn't pay much attention and five months later, Nixon was reelected by a landslide over the Democratic candidate George McGovern.

Watergate just added to the public's distrust in the government
But Watergate was by no means going away. After the five burglars (along with two other organizers) were found guilty of wiretapping and conspiracy, one by one, people in the Nixon administration began talking. High-up officials and even Nixon himself became implicated in not only the Watergate burglaries, but also in the attempt to cover them up. By now, people were definitely paying attention. The court hearings even started to be publicly televised, which was unusual at that time.

The Senate hearings caused quite a commotion
Soon after the Senate hearings began, Carl came down to D.C. to be a part of the prosecution team. The day he arrived, he remembers watching them on a grainy black and white TV. That day, he found out through the testimony of a White House aide, that Nixon had set up a system to tape-record conversations in Oval Office. If there were a cover-up, then it would all be on tape! What a way for Carl's first day in D.C. to begin!

Even some of Nixon's strongest Republican backers in the House were ready to impeach him.
As time went on, things got worse and worse for Nixon and others associated with the scandal. The prosecutors did get a hold of those tapes, but much of them had been tampered with and recorded over. Senate questioning and various testimonies had made other abuses of power public. The White House had been keeping an "enemies list" of journalists, intellectuals, politicians, labor and business leaders. It was also discovered that many huge American corporations like American Airlines and ITT had made millions of dollars of illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign.

And then came the "smoking gun," the piece of evidence that clinched the trial: After the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon must turn over all the tapes that it had asked for, one was released in which the President was heard directing his aides to order the CIA to stop the FBI's investigation of Watergate.

Goodbye! Nixon steps down as president
After that statement was revealed, all members of the House Judiciary Committee favored impeachment, the process of ending Nixon's presidency before his term was up. But in August of 1974, before he could be impeached, Nixon resigned-the first, and so far only, time a president has. Gerald Ford, the vice president at the time, took over as president, saying, "Our long national nightmare is over."

Woodward and Bernstein watch Nixon's resignation
Although most American newspapers were celebrating the successful end to the crisis, people's views ranged widely. Some felt that just because the person was gone, that wasn't any guarantee that someone else couldn't come along and do it again, since no overarching government guidelines had been changed.

For better or for worse, Nixon was ousted but the system remained the same.

One good thing to realize from this national scandal is that our system is one in which people have the power to participate. Carl feels that this is one of the lessons we should all take from Watergate. "If you want to change the country, you can. You can run for office, you can get involved at all levels-local politics, the school board, whatever you want."


March Madness

"Watergate made me an optimist. It gave me a greater sense of respect for the way the country's set up-not necessarily how it runs, but how it should run, how it can run."

I had never really thought of Watergate as an optimistic event. For most people in the 1970s, it just added to a growing distrust and disillusionment with the government. But in the eyes of Carl, Watergate can give us hope-a hope that our government can and will live up to its full potential.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Jennifer- What the heck is OPEC? And how does it affect me?
Stephanie -The frigid blast of military might known as the Cold War