It’s just after midnight on June 17th, 1972, in Washington DC.
It’s a muggy night in the nation’s capital and there isn’t much traffic. But one car cruises up and down, circling the streets.
Inside, three disheveled-looking young men peer out into the darkness. They’re meant to look like hippies, but their disguises aren’t convincing. Their hair is too neat, the car too new. These men are undercover cops, and on the lookout for drug dealers.
They haven't had much luck. The night's been quiet. Until there’s a squawk from their radio.
The police dispatcher says, “... any cruiser anywhere, see guard at the Watergate Hotel in reference to possible suspicious circumstances.” Sergeant Leeper, the undercover officer in charge, glances at the other men in the car. It’s not really their responsibility. But their night has been quiet and uneventful, boring even. So Sergeant Leeper decides a change of scene is in order.
So they head for the Watergate; a large modern complex with offices and a hotel, right on the banks of the Potomac River. When the unmarked police car pulls up outside, everything seems normal.
Leeper and his men are met by the security guard who first raised the alarm. He believes a break-in is in progress. The three cops, still in their hippy disguises, pull out their guns and begin a search. They start in the basement and work their way up…
Finally, the cops reach the sixth floor. They wind their way through dark office after dark office, until finally, they come to a door marked ‘Democratic National Committee’, the national headquarters of the Democratic Party.
There’s movement in the darkness. The cops shout, “Police! Hands up!” and flip on the lights.
Five pairs of hands go up.
Leeper and his colleagues don’t look like cops, but the five men they’ve found don’t look like robbers either. They’re all middle-aged, dressed in suits and ties, and wearing surgical gloves. At their feet, a large bag overflows with expensive-looking electronics.
There’s a moment of silence and then one of the thieves finally says: “You got us”.
The incident at the Watergate Hotel will be listed in official police records as simply “burglary, Democratic National Committee, sixth floor”. But this bungled break-in will set off one of the greatest scandals in political history. It will unravel a web of corruption, shatter America’s trust in its leadership, and eventually topple the most powerful man in the world, President of the United States, Richard Nixon; a turn of events that was set in motion on June 17th, 1972.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 17th, 1972: The Watergate Break-In.
Act One: Special Investigations
It’s June 13th, 1971, almost one year before the Watergate burglary.
It’s a Sunday morning. And the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, is weary after a night of festivities. His daughter, Tricia, was married the previous day in the Rose Garden of the White House, and the party continued late into the night.
So, Nixon hopes this morning will be a bit slow giving him time to catch up with the news. In the Oval Office, he flips open a copy of the New York Times, expecting to see photos from his daughter’s lavish celebration. It was a beautiful ceremony, a chance to put politics aside, at least for a night.
But before Nixon can get to the society pages, he’s distracted by a headline decrying the costly and unpopular war against the Communists in Vietnam. As the President scans the newspaper article, he grows deeply concerned. The exposé is comprehensive; some 7,000 pages of top-secret government files, reveal how successive administrations have lied to the American people about the war in Vietnam. Nixon knows there’s only one way this article could have happened: a leak from the Pentagon, Head Quarters for the United States Department of Defense.
The Pentagon Papers, as the leaked documents come to be known, is a huge embarrassment to the country. And Nixon won’t stand for it. He immediately demands answers from his subordinates. And when the FBI fails to identify which official at the Pentagon is responsible, the president takes matters into his own hands.
In August 1971, Nixon establishes a clandestine ‘Special Investigations Unit’. Increasingly paranoid, Nixon wants only the best and most trustworthy people involved. So he makes sure the team includes former CIA and FBI operatives.
At first, the mandate of this secret group is to find the source of the Pentagon Papers leak. But over time, the Special Investigations Unit evolves into something more disturbing; a private, secret police force that reports only to the President.
And as Nixon launches his campaign for a second term as President, he puts this organization to work against his opponents in the upcoming election: the Democratic Party.
It’s June 17th, 1972, ten months after the Nixon White House set up its secretive ‘Special Investigations Unit’.
It’s early on Saturday morning and the newsroom of the Washington Post is still sleepy. Two young crime reporters lounge by their desks with their feet up and cigarettes in hand. Soon, an office runner appears and hands one of them a slip of paper from the news desk. When one of the journalists, Bob Woodward, reads the note, he swings his feet to the floor. Then he signals to his colleague, Carl Bernstein, to listen up.
Woodward tells Bernstein that, earlier that morning, five men were arrested for breaking into the Watergate complex; specifically, the officers of the Democratic National Committee, or the DNC. The suit-clad criminals have all been charged with burglary.
Bernstein frowns, disappointed. The break-in is a bit odd, but nothing is especially newsworthy. But then, Woodward informs him that the gang's leader is a former CIA operative named James McCord. The five intruders were carrying surveillance equipment, as well as thousands of dollars in cash. One of them had a notepad containing the phone number of an office at the White House.
Hearing this, Bernstein perks up. Then, he and Woodward get to work.
Their first report on the break-in appears on the front page of the Washington Post the following day. Although James McCord’s CIA connection is mentioned, Woodward and Bernstein are cautious not to jump to conclusions. Their report states: ‘There was no explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the DNC offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.’ Their story goes on to document how the men were found with three pen size tear gas guns, and $2,300 in cash, more than fifteen thousand dollars today.
It’s a short piece, just a couple of paragraphs long. But the two young journalists sense a hulking iceberg lurking beneath the tip of this strange story. They resolve to keep investigating until they uncover the full truth. And their report is just the beginning of what will be a two-year journey into the belly of an unprecedented scandal; one that will eventually engulf the highest office in the land.
Act Two: Scandal
It’s June 20th, 1972, three days after the break-in at the Watergate Building in Washington DC.
At 2 o’clock in the morning, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward drives across town, parks his car, and walks another few blocks to a dingy underground parking lot.
He glances over his shoulder before going in. He wants to make sure no one followed him here. He has to be extra careful to protect the contact he’s about to meet; a whistleblower from the highest levels of government.
Inside the garage, Woodward approaches a lone vehicle. But just before he reaches it, he hears footsteps behind him. He spins around, his heart hammering. A tall man loiters in the shadows, only the red tip of his cigarette giving him away. Woodward knows the man’s name but he doesn’t use it. In fact, he will not use it publicly for another three decades. Instead, he only calls him by a codename: ‘Deep Throat’.
Deep Throat is a cautious individual. He gave Woodward explicit instructions on how they would communicate. Woodward is forbidden from calling Deep Throat on the phone. Instead, if he wants to speak with Deep Throat, Woodward must put a red flag in a flowerpot on the balcony of his apartment. If Deep Throat wants to meet, he will send Woodward back a coded message - hand-written on Woodward’s morning paper - that gives a time and a location; always a safe, secluded place like this garage.
And it's here in the darkness that Deep Throat feeds Woodward more information and points him in the direction of something big. Before long, Woodward and Bernstein find a paper trail proving that a group campaigning for Richard Nixon’s re-election paid one of the Watergate burglars $25,000 in hush money.
Suddenly, the story transforms from a simple break-in to a full-blown conspiracy. With the help of Deep Throat, the two reporters from the Washington Post follow the facts all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s the morning of March 21st, 1973; more than nine months have passed since the first stories appeared in the press about the strange break-in at the Watergate Complex.
In the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon meets with two of his closest advisers: his legal counselor, John Dean, and his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman.
Nixon has reason to celebrate. A few months ago, he won re-election in a landslide. The negative press regarding the Watergate Scandal did little to dissuade America’s voters. Still, the mood in the room is somber; because Nixon’s advisors are worried about Watergate. They know the scandal is far from over.
Recently, the five men arrested for the original break-in went to court. The group’s leader, James McCord, was convicted on eight counts of burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping. And in the face of a lengthy prison sentence, McCord wrote a letter to the judge saying that he was under political pressure to plead guilty and keep his mouth shut; pressure from officials connected to the White House.
For a time, it seemed Nixon’s efforts to cover up his complicity were working. But now, John Dean is deeply concerned. To Dean, Watergate is like a cancer that’s growing, spreading, and getting ever closer to the President. And Dean knows that reporters like Woodward and Bernstein will never stop until they find the truth.
But in the end, the mortal blow to Nixon’s Presidency doesn’t come from the press but Nixon's hubris.
Since the beginning of his political career, Nixon has been obsessed with his legacy. As president, he installed a secret, voice-activated system that records everything that’s said in the Oval Office, as well as in his study and at the presidential country retreat at Camp David.
Nixon obviously knows about the system. But in the heat of multiple conversations, he seems to forget he’s being recorded. He speaks freely and loosely, openly discussing the Watergate cover-up; swearing copiously; even making racially charged statements that will later come back to haunt him.
One of the few people who knows about the existence of the system is Nixon’s Deputy Assistant, Alexander Butterfield. And in July 1973, a Senate Committee investigating the Watergate Scandal calls Butterfield to testify on Capitol Hill. There, Butterfield reveals the explosive truth about the taping system.
“The Smoking Gun Tapes”, as they will come to be called, contain over 3,000 hours of material. Though only a fraction is made public, two released transcripts clearly show evidence of President Nixon plotting a conspiracy to cover up his knowledge of the break-in at the Watergate complex.
Confronted with this political reality, Nixon will give up the fight, accept his fate, and do something he finds personally abhorrent: resign the presidency.
Act Three: Downfall
It’s August 8th, 1974, over two years after the break-in at the Watergate complex.
At the White House in Washington DC, Richard Nixon sits behind his desk in the Oval Office. He stares into a camera pointed directly at him and addresses the American people as president for the last time. He tells the citizens that the country needs to focus on peace abroad and prosperity at home. He says Americans deserve a full-time president, not someone wrapped up in a fight for their own personal exoneration.
Since the emergence of the Smoking Gun Tapes, Nixon’s political and moral authority has collapsed. He’s facing the very real threat of an impeachment by Congress, and he’s certain that, if given the opportunity, the Senate would vote to convict him and strip him of power.
So Nixon decided to jump before he was pushed.
He takes a deep breath and looks down at his desk. Then he publicly commits to a decision that no other American President has made, before or since:
"Nixon: Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
The next day, Nixon’s Vice President, Gerald Ford, is sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. One of Ford’s first acts as president is to pardon Nixon for any involvement in Watergate. The investigation into this scandal will continue for years, but the presidential pardon allows Nixon to escape justice. He returns home to California; his name, ruined; his legacy, destroyed. But he will remain a free man until his death in April of 1994.
In its time, the Watergate Scandal was historic and unprecedented; the story captured the nation’s attention, poisoned the public trust, and ended a Presidency; but the many misdeeds of the Nixon administration might never have seen the light of day were it not for the five bungling burglars who broke into the Watergate Building in Washington DC on June 17th, 1972.
Next on History Daily.June 20th, 1975. Steven Spielberg's thriller Jawsis released in theaters, creating the genre of the summer blockbuster.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.