No fiction could match the real-life challenge to American democracy represented by the Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up — and the two-year odyssey of journalistic and congressional investigations that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon 40 years ago Friday.
That real-life soap opera makes the tawdry Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky White House tainting seem like a minor, canceled TV series by comparison.
It all began during the stretch drive of Nixon’s 1972 march toward landslide re-election for a second term. On June 17, 1972, a band of men — including several Cuban-Americans from Miami — was caught during an ill-fated burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex.
When it was revealed that some of the men had ties to the Nixon Administration, a White House spokesman called it a “third-rate burglary,” the first effort to distance the chief executive from the petty political crime that would erupt into a prolonged national scandal. Nixon went on to win an easy re-election against Democratic Sen. George McGovern, but the burglary and related massive cover-up opened a wound that would be fatal to the second term.
I was a rookie Miami Herald reporter at that time. It was exciting to be anywhere near a newsroom — and to know that so much of this national drama had connections to South Florida. It was where many of the burglars called home; it was where Nixon had his “Florida White House” retreat on Key Biscayne; and it was where hush money for some of the burglars reportedly was being held for them.
In those years, national news media were held in deep disdain by many in government (has much changed?). This most certainly included the Nixon White House, which tried repeatedly to demonize reporters and editors representing organizations as distinguished as CBS News and the Washington Post. It was the diligent, dedicated and relentless reporting and writing of two Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that ultimately outed “All the President’s Men” (a phrase that became the title of their national best-selling book and, later, a hit movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman).
Regardless of their personal politics, Americans were surprised to learn of the intense level of paranoia in the Nixon White House. Many were shocked that top officials of our government kept an “enemies list” — though today we know that’s not so uncommon at such a high level of politics. Ultimately, though, it was the revelation of hundreds of hours of secret White House tape recordings of every key conversation that exposed us to the darkest and deepest depths of the Nixonian hubris.
In addition to the ongoing journalistic breakthroughs led by the Post and other media outlets, the live televised Senate Watergate hearings transported Americans to the daily political drama, up close and personal. We came to respect certain leaders from both political parties for their attention to detail and fair commitment to finding the truth. And if not for those hearings, we may never have learned about the all-important White House taping system.
The forced release of the White House’s secret tapes provided the most compelling evidence of the president’s own involvement in the massive cover-up. With support in Congress nearly evaporated, Nixon went on national television the evening of Aug. 8, 1974, to announce his not-very-surprising resignation. His goodbye wave the next morning from the steps of the White House helicopter was the sweeping final act of an astonishing fall from grace — but a moving affirmation that democracy works, even in a crisis.
The bloodless replacement of leadership at the highest level proceeded without incident, and more than 40 top aides — including a former attorney general, the president’s chief of staff and his special senior policy advisor — were arrested and charged with Watergate-related crimes. Through it all, the comment that lingers the longest and best is this one: “No one is above the law.”
I managed to snare the master mat from which the Miami Herald’s front-page “Nixon Resigns” banner headline was printed, and it remains my most prized framed “art” trophy today.
Ten years after the resignation, I produced a 30-minute television special for a Miami station about the Watergate saga and its Miami connections. The highlight for me was the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with the wise and wonderful retired U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, whose balanced chairmanship of the Senate Watergate Committee will always be viewed as a great demonstration of courageous statesmanship.
I asked him what he would want his own legacy to be. Sen. Ervin’s succinct reply still rings out today: “… a simple country lawyer who just tried to do good for his client.” In Watergate, with the people of the United States as his “client,” Sen. Ervin truly achieved that simple good.
(Article originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat on August 8, 2014)