Exposing Criminal Activity in Richard Nixon’s White House


June 17, 1972: Five men, wearing business suits and rubber gloves, were caught trying to place listening devices inside Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. This event is essentially what started the unraveling of Richard Nixon’s presidency. This break-in led to revelations of “misuse of campaign contributions, laundered money, political sabotage, deception, immorality, and any number of illegal activities” (Streitmatter 176). It took two years to get President Nixon to resign, after the actions of all three branches of the US government.

The Washington Post was the first to say that the break-in pointed a finger towards the natural antagonist of the Democratic party- the Republicans. Two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were put together to investigate and report on this case. These two men became journalistic legends and, “changed the course of American history” (178). Woodstein, the name given to the duo, investigated for four months straight until they had some solid evidence of a case against Richard Nixon’s White House. They knew that there was abuse of power going on, but did not know to what extent.


  • The burglars had been paid with Nixon campaign funds
  • The funds were controlled by John N. Mitchell, and were kept in a special account of CREEP.
  • Nixon’s entire re-election strategy was based on “dirty tricks” on the Democrats, including the fabrication of slanderous letters.
    • “The Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House” (179).
  • Nixon’s aide served as a contact in the spying and sabotage operations against the Democrats.
  • Both the Watergate burglary and the campaign of sabotage were financed by the same fund, which was controlled by the president’s closest aide.

The Washington Post pretty much investigated the scandal alone. Other newspapers wanted nothing to do with it, saying that the Post was “overplaying” it. Television did not do a good job of reporting this story either. “Unlike the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, this story didn’t translate easily into visual images” (183). Critics say that the most serious consequence of this story not being aired on television, or portrayed well enough was the fact that Nixon won the next election by a landslide. The scandal never became a huge issue during the time of the election.

The editors at the Post were attacked verbally and threatened with calculated efforts to punish the Post for investigating the scandal so deeply. These attacks came straight from White House officials. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee were at the receiving end of those phone calls and threats. The punishment began shortly after the 1972 election, with Post reporters excluded from WH events, and stories being fed to the paper’s competitors.

While this was happening, Nixon was misusing his power in order to retaliate against the Post. Secret Oval Office tapes were reluctantly released by the White House after ordered by Judge John J. Sirica. They proved that Nixon told his aides to block the license renewal of two Florida TV stations owned by the Post. The tapes also revealed that Nixon ordered his aides to use his presidential power to retaliate against the Post‘s lawyer. He said that he was willing to use the rest of the $5 million in his campaign fund to take the Washington Post down.

During the indictment of the burglars, one of them came forward and asked for a lighter sentence in exchange for information. He then confirmed much of Woodstein’s reporting. Nixon’s closest aides were indicted and Nixon was named a “coconspirator.”  He was ultimately charged with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress for defying committee subpoenas.

In early 1974, a panel of experts revealed that eighteen and a half minutes were missing from the tapes handed over to Judge Sirica. The gap in time was only three days after the break-in. When the tapes were finally revealed, the American people learned that their president was a “mean-spirited, lying, foul-mouthed bigot” (187). On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the only US president to resign from office.

Image result for woodward and bernstein
Carl Bernstein (left) and Robert Woodward (right) were the two reporters to unveil the Watergate Scandal. Via The Weekly Standard https://www.weeklystandard.com/max-holland/the-woodstein-tapes
Image result for richard nixon resignation speech
Richard Nixon during his resignation speech. Via https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/nixon-announces-his-resignation-video

Key Terms/People:

  • Richard Nixon: The 37th president, until his resignation in 1974. He resigned after it was revealed that he was at the center of the Watergate scandal.
  • The Watergate scandal: The break-in that lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon after it was revealed that he and his men were behind the plan to undermine the power of both the election process and the presidency in favor of Nixon.
  • The Washington PostThe newspaper that was behind the revelation of the Watergate scandal, and employed the two reporters who investigated the entire scandal from beginning to end. This newspaper was the first to report on the burglary, noticing the strange details.
  • Third-Rate Burglary: What White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler deemed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex.
  • Robert Woodward & Carl Bernstein: The two reporters who stood their ground and investigated the Watergate story, solving the most widespread system of political corruption in America.
  • “Woodstein”: The name given to the reporter duo.
  • The Watergate burglars: Five men that were caught on June 17, 1972 by three Washington, D.C. police officers trying to place listening devices inside Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. They were wearing business suits and rubber gloves.
  • John N. Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman: All three men worked under Nixon, they were high-ranking presidential associates, all involved in the scandal.
  • CREEP: The Committee for the Re-election of the President
  • Deep Throat: The nickname of the most famous anonymous source in the history of American journalism. Deep Throat confirmed and denied many facts for Woodstein while also steering them away from false leads.
  • Federal Judge John J. Sirica: The judge who ultimately called for Nixon’s impeachment.
  • Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham: The two Washington Post editors who were at the receiving end of WH threats and verbal abuse due to their involvement in the investigation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there any examples of scandals today that news outlets refuse to cover? Or any examples (other than the obvious) of people that abuse their power like Nixon had?
  2. Was the abysmal reporting done by television a main reason why the American people were not aware of what was going on? Or was it the fact that no other newspaper covered the scandal? Would it have been different if there were visual aspects to this case?
  3. What could have been done differently in order to get the word out before the election? Would the election have gone differently if people had known more about this investigation?

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