“We didn’t jump out of the car and go running up there,” Leeper said, recalling their initial ho-hum response in those early morning hours of June 17, 1972. “You get so many calls like that -- burglary in progress -- and 90 to 95 percent of them aren’t anything.”
But they saw the tape-covered door latches in the parking garage, the same kind of tampering on doors leading to the sixth-floor headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the disheveled files inside. Maybe something was going on after all. Then Barrett, gun drawn, spotted a moving figure and got the shock of his young life: “Five middle-aged guys stand up . . . wearing suits and ties and surgical gloves. And they’ve got a walkie-talkie . . . and tools and all this electrical stuff.”
Thus began the scandal that became known by a single word: Watergate. From a routine police summons and bungled burglary and bugging to the unprecedented resignation two years later of a discredited president facing almost certain impeachment, it mesmerized the nation’s capital and ultimately the whole country.
Month by month, an appalled public confronted accounts of secret slush funds, hush money for the burglars, forged cables, wire-tapping and illegal entries by a secret “Plumbers” squad, enemies’ lists, a secret tape-recording system in the White House and the flagrant and greedy abuse of presidential power.
By the time Richard M. Nixon waved goodbye to a red-eyed White House staff and boarded a helicopter for California exile on Aug. 9, 1974, his administration had disintegrated into disgrace. What seemed impossible, even unthinkable, had occurred: The president, sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, had been implicated with his top aides in an elaborate conspiracy to cover up criminal behavior and political sabotage.
Today, 20 years later, Watergate is contested history, constantly reexamined in books, on talk shows and in high school classrooms filled with students who were not yet born when the burglars got caught. What were they really doing there that night? Was it a scandal or merely politics as usual? Who was “Deep Throat” and will Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward ever tell?
Watergate even changed the language of politics. It seems a scandal isn’t a scandal unless it ends in a “gate.”
This is a retelling of the central story using publicly released FBI investigative files, oral histories, private memos, handwritten notes and other documents, most of them gleaned from the National Archives and not available when President Nixon resigned 18 years ago. This account includes voices from both well-known and little-known participants in the extraordinary crisis.