It’s not true. Watergate was a genuine constitutional crisis with a president who had committed at least one felony (obstruction of justice); for the first time in our history was compelled to resign; and was told by members of his own party that if he didn’t resign, he would be impeached and convicted by the U.S. Senate.
“Watergate embraced a wide variety of illegal acts, abusing the intelligence community among them,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Anybody who’s sloppy in handling information deserves criticism, but this is no Watergate. Hillary mishandled classified information. It’s significant. It’s not trivial, but it’s no way the magnitude of Watergate.”
Watergate began with a break-in of Democratic National Committee offices at 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1972, at Washington’s Watergate hotel. The White House press secretary dubbed it a “third-rate burglary.” Some two years later, after a Supreme Court ruling ordered President Nixon to turn over audiotapes he had secretly recorded in the Oval Office, the so-called smoking gun tape came to light. It reveals Nixon six days after the break-in ordering White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to use the CIA to get the FBI to back off investigating the break-in.
A Special Investigations Unit in the White House designed to plug leaks to the press and known as the “Plumbers” was found to be behind the break-in, a ham-handed attempt to install listening devices in the offices of the political opposition. The arrests of the five burglars and their links to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP) and the White House led to the cover-up and the abuses of power that took down Nixon’s presidency.
Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974, prompted by what was revealed in the smoking gun tape. He was not the only casualty: Sixty-nine people in his administration would be indicted for a variety of crimes, including money laundering, destruction of documents, and payment of hush money, with 48 of them found guilty of wiretapping, perjury, and obstruction of justice, and sent to prison. Nixon’s top aides, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, were among those who were convicted and served time along with Attorney General John Mitchell.
Historian Robert Dallek remembers Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, assuring the nation when he was sworn in that “Our long national nightmare is over.” “And it was a national nightmare, and for Trump to invoke the memory of those terrible crimes is pure political posturing,” said Dallek. “Everything about the man is a blight on the presidency.”
Another big difference between then and now: The fever gripping Washington about the latest twist in the Clinton email scandal does not have bipartisan support the way Watergate did. Republicans joined with Democrats in prosecuting Watergate, and conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater was among the small group of GOP senators who went to Nixon at the White House and told him he had lost their support and had to resign.
The dogged reporting of two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, won The Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Watergate. Washingtonians would wait outside the newspaper’s building on 15th Street so that at 11 o’clock in the evening they could get the news “hot off the presses.”
There were so many memorable twists and turns like the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest. And who can forget Nixon’s loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, straddling between her chair and the taping equipment to demonstrate how she was responsible for accidentally erasing the first five minutes of a missing 18 ½ minutes believed to be a crucial conversation between Nixon and Haldeman.
Dallek recalls how everyone in the country was waiting for the other shoe to drop, the phrase most commonly invoked about Watergate. The day that Nixon asked for the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Dallek announced to his students at UCLA, “The other shoe has dropped.” All heads turned to one young man. It was Haldeman’s son, who didn’t say anything, and just looked down. “I always tried to be judicious in my teaching and not reveal my political biases, but I couldn’t resist saying that,” said Dallek. It was a big class, and he never spoke to the young man. But in his final exam, Haldeman’s son challenged a lot of Dallek’s interpretations. “It was very smart and very independent of him, and I gave him an A,” said Dallek.
The senior Haldeman served 18 months for conspiracy and obstruction of justice before he was released on parole. He asked Nixon for a pardon on the eve of the president’s resignation. Nixon refused, and Haldeman later said Nixon was involved in the cover-up “from Day 1.”