Friday, March 20, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: "Shots Fired"

June 17th, 1972:

Washington D.C. police officers went to room 214 of the Watergate Hotel in response to a call from security guard Frank Wills reporting a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Upon arrival, they found five men (including two Cuban exiles) attempting to install illegal wiretapping equipment in the DNC offices; in a moment of panic, one of the burglars pulled out a handgun and opened fire on the cops, triggering a short but intense firefight which left the shooter dead and another of the burglars, ex-CIA operative James W. McCord, seriously wounded. While McCord's three surviving cohorts were arrested and booked for breaking & entering and other charges, McCord himself was taken to George Washington University hospital to be treated for his wounds. Two other men who'd been part of the break-in scheme, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, would be indicted shortly after McCord's team was arrested. Under normal circumstances the break-in would have been a 6-line(at most) item in a police blotter, but the fact Liddy, Hunt, and McCord all had connections to the White House, which guaranteed the break-in would be front page news in the next morning's edition of the Washington Post. Within days after the arrest of the surviving Watergate break-in team members, new information began to surface indicating the break-in had been part of a larger conspiracy by incumbent President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign to derail any potential Democratic challengers Nixon might face in the 1972 elections.

For Nixon, then three years into his presidency and ridng a considerable wave of popularity following notable successes in foreign policy and his “New Federalism” domestic initiatives at home, word of the break-in team's arrest and the shootout preceding it couldn't have come at a worse moment. To impartial observers it looked at best like the President had lost control of his own re-election campaign and at worst like he had explicitly sanctioned the commission of criminal acts for the sake of political gain. In spite of his persistent efforts to distance himself from McCord and the rest of the Watergate conspirators, Nixon was soon deeply enmeshed in the scandal that ensued over the break-in; at the 1972 Republican National Convention, many of the convention delegations previously pledged to Nixon switched their votes to either anti-war liberal Pete McCloskey of California or anti-Communist conservative John M. Ashbrook of Ohio. A New York Times editorial published two weeks after the convention predicted Nixon would end up being only a one-term president, but the course of events would conspire to rob him of even that small luxury: in October of 1972 Congress would impeach Nixon and remove him from office, making him the second American president to face an impeachment trial and the first to be convicted in such a trial. Nixon's Vice-President at the time, Spiro Agnew, would succeed him as the 38th presidential term.

With Nixon removed from office and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the break-in conspiracy, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern of South Dakota won the 1972 elections by default, winning forty-nine of fifty states in the biggest electoral landslide in American political history. McGovern's own legacy as chief executive would be a complicated one; while his Affordable Health Care Initiative would revolutionize the U.S. medical system and he would receive massive international acclaim for helping to mediate the historic Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, on the other side of the coin he would face heavy criticism for his failure to get inflation under control and for supposedly having been the man who “lost” Vietnam to the Communists when the NVA overran Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War. It didn't help any when two McGovern Administration aides were indicted for accepting kickbacks from from a lobbyist seeking to get the embargo on Cuba lifted. The toll that the kickback controversy took on McGovern's health during his second term in the Oval Office would later be cited by one of his closest friends, Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, as a key factor in Carter's decision not to run for the presidency in 1980. McGovern largely retired from politics after his White House tenure ended, but his vice-president Sargent Shriver would challenge Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1984 and serve as an advisor to Bill Clinton's White House transition team after the 1992 electionis. As for Nixon, he was paroled in August of 1989 after serving nearly fifteen years of his prison sentence; when he emerged back into the public eye after his release from jail, he was a shadow of the dynamic figure he had once been, and within just eight months of his parole he would die from a stroke at UCLA Medical Center.


In reality, the Watergate burglars surrendered peacefully when the D.C. police caught them at DNC headquarters. It would take almost a full year for the conspiracy behind the break-in to morph into a full-blown scandal, but once it did so the Nixon White House came under fire for abusing the authority and privileges of the executive branch of the federal government. Vice-President Spiro Agnew would himself be the focus of a major scandal when he was accused of income tax evasion and had to resign the vice-presidency in October of 1973; Nixon would resign as President on August 9th, 1974, rather than face impeachment proceedings. Nixon's post-White House years were devoted largely to writing his memoirs and advising Republican leaders on foreign policy; he died on April 22nd, 1994, at the age of eighty-one.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who first broke the story behind the Watergate burglary, would gain fame for their 1974 book All The President's Men; film director Alan J. Pakula would win the 1976 Best Director Academy Award for his movie adaptation of the book. Michael Kurland and S.W. Barton's 1980 what-if novel The Last President showed a fictionalized version of Nixon getting away with a coverup of the Watergate break-in and the U.S. thrust onto a path toward becoming a quasi-dictatorship as a result. More recently, Oliver Stone made Watergate a major theme of his 1995 drama Nixon and producer Gale Ann Hurd satirized both the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency itself in the 1999 comedy Dick with Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams. The most recent Watergate-related movie, 2008's Frost/Nixon, was directed by Ron Howard and recreates Nixon's 1977 interviews with British journalist David Frost.

The identity of “Deep Throat”, Woodward and Bernstein's main source for information about the break-in and subsequent coverup attempts, would remain a mystery until 2005, when ex-FBI agent Mark Felt went public with the disclosure that he had been the one to tip Woodward and Bernstein off to the Nixon re-election campaign's role in the burglary. Felt died in 2008 at the age of 95. Woodward and Bernstein are still writing today; Bernstein has had a number of articles published in magazines including Time and The New Republic, while Woodward is the author of a series of books about the Bush and Obama Administrations.

To this day Richard Nixon remains the only President of the United States to resign from his office, but he wouldn't be the last chief executive to face impeachment; in 1998 Bill Clinton's role in the Whitewater scandal would trigger the biggest political crisis that the presidency had faced since Watergate. Hillary Clinton, First Lady at the time the Whitewater scandal erupted, had a little-known personal connection to Watergate-- she was a researcher with the inquiry committee then advising the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on impeachment procedures.

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