Watergate: The American scandal that ended a presidency

Richard Nixon's scandal for the ages eclipsed by January 6 investigations

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Although more than 50 years have passed, the Watergate affair remains a cautionary tale of the threat of untrammelled presidential power and the yardstick against which all other political scandals are judged.

Yet some historians believe its architect, former president Richard Nixon, risks being usurped as the norm-breaking exemplar of presidential corruption by Donald Trump and the firestorm over his role in the 2021 US Capitol assault.

Mr Nixon's underlying crime was covering up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex that was aimed at stealing documents that might have helped him in an election he would ultimately win by a landslide anyway.

The accusations against Mr Trump — that he incited a deadly riot to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power as part of a conspiracy to overturn an election — appear “far more serious”, says history professor Michael Green.

“One of the ironies is that Nixon did not need to order a break-in to win that election,” he said. “And there is no evidence, even with all of the tapes, that there was ever a discussion or thought of overturning the result if it went against him.”

Five Watergate burglars were caught red-handed on the evening of June 16 in 1972 and it quickly became clear that some were linked to Mr Nixon and the White House.

The ensuing investigation opened a Pandora's box of abuses and dirty tricks that included political spying, the forgery of correspondence and even the theft of a pair of shoes to intimidate a rival to Mr Nixon.

But the cover-up was initially so successful that Mr Nixon won 49 of the 50 states in his landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern in that year's presidential election.

The whitewash might have succeeded were it not for the chance discovery in the summer of 1973 that the president had secretly recorded all of his White House meetings.

They included a “smoking gun” tape in which Mr Nixon could be heard ordering that the FBI, which was set to investigate the Watergate break-in, be told to “stay the hell out of this”.

Mr Nixon resigned after a delegation of Republican elders, led by ultraconservative Barry Goldwater, came to the White House in 1974 to tell him he was likely to be impeached and the jig was up.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the reporters who played a pivotal role in bringing down Mr Nixon, have written a new foreword for their major book All the President's Men drawing parallels to Mr Trump.

They suggest that Mr Trump's incitement of a mob to march on the Capitol constituted “a deception that exceeded even Nixon's imagination”.

“By legal definition this is clearly sedition … thus Trump became the first seditious president in our history,” they say.

While the Senate voted unanimously to set up a cross-party investigative committee on Watergate, the Republicans of the 2020s vetoed a bipartisan commission and punished two members who joined the Democratic-led House committee investigating January 6.

About 80 million Americans — considerably more than a third of the population — tuned in to White House counsel John Dean's televised evidence given against Mr Nixon at the Watergate hearings, while about 20 million — only 6 per cent of Americans — watched the blockbuster first hearing put on by the January 6 panel.

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: An image of former Vice President Mike Pence on the night of January 6, 2021 is displayed during the third hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U. S.  Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC.  The bipartisan committee, which has been gathering evidence for almost a year related to the January 6 attack at the U. S.  Capitol, is presenting its findings in a series of televised hearings.  On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U. S.  Capitol Building during an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for President Joe Biden   Drew Angerer / Getty Images / AFP

For David Greenberg, author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image, the Watergate hearings were “instrumental” in bringing down a president attempting to subvert democracy.

“The difference, however, is that in 1973 and 1974, a great many Republican congressmen and senators loyal to Nixon ended up admitting that he was engaged in criminal activity,” he told AFP.

“Today, only a few … have been willing to acknowledge Trump's complicity. Our polarised, partisan environment may prevent the January 6 hearings from achieving all they should.”

AFP contributed to this report

Updated: January 31, 2023, 10:59 PM