The events which led to the resignation, on August 9 1974, of President Richard Nixon began in a relatively low-key way with the red-handed arrest in the early hours of a June 1972 night of five burglars. The building they were apprehended in, however, was no ordinary one but the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Washington DC, housed at the time in the Watergate apartment complex. As it emerged in the subsequent trials and investigations, the burglars had been part of a covert operation, known as the ‘plumbers unit’, which had already engineered one break-in of the Watergate offices to install bugging equipment.
In the background was Republican President Nixon’s campaign to secure a second elected term and the eerily well-named CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President. In the November poll Nixon gained a landslide victory, winning over 60 per cent of the popular vote. But any sense of triumph was short-lived as the Watergate clouds darkened and Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward kept the public supplied with fresh revelations of murky dealings in the administration. Although Nixon initially denied any prior knowledge of the break-in or involvement in a subsequent cover-up, the string of trials and resignations that followed ensured no let-up for the White House.
In June 1973 John Dean, the former presidential counsel, formally implicated President Nixon in testimony to a Senate committee; the killer blow came, however, with the revelation that tape recordings existed of White House conversations covering this period. When the president refused to testify or to hand over the tapes, Congress began an impeachment process against him. As a vote for impeachment drew ever closer, Nixon bowed to the inevitable and, three days after finally releasing the tapes, announced his resignation in a televised address to the nation.
When: June 1972 to August 1974
Where: Washington DC, USA
Toll: Three of Nixon’s co-conspirators were jailed. Watergate cast doubt on the probity of politicians in general and severely dented the reputation of the legal profession because so many of those involved were lawyers. The affair made such an impression on the public consciousness all over the world that since then almost any public scandal is suffixed with ‘-gate’.
You should know: One month after Nixon’s resignation, the new president, Gerald Ford, who had been Nixon’s vice president, granted him a ‘full free and absolute’ pardon for ‘all offenses against the United states’. Richard Nixon is the only US president to have resigned from office.