Rick Perlstein is a historian and the author of “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
With all the talk of secret tapes and special prosecutors, all the speculation about coverups and abuses of power, comparisons between the scandals plaguing the Trump administration and the scandal that ultimately brought down Richard Nixon abound. Yet more than 40 years on, myths and misconceptions about the Watergate break-in and its massive political ramifications remain. Here are five of the most persistent.
In retrospect, the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972, ordered by the Nixon administration, seems bizarre. After all, as politics scholar Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution points out, “Nixon’s victory was never really in doubt, as the Democratic party was in the middle of a rather spectacular civil war. So why go to the trouble of breaking into their headquarters when they were crumbling from within?”
But this view is premised on hindsight. The break-in at the Watergate took place June 17, when the question of whom Nixon would face in the general election was still very much up in the air — as it was until the conclusion of the Democratic convention in July.
The most important events precipitating the break-in were a pair of meetings in the office of Attorney General John Mitchell in January 1972, in which Nixon campaign aide G. Gordon Liddy presented an elaborate plan to harass and sabotage the Democratic Party, and a subsequent meeting shortly thereafter, in which Mitchell approved a scaled-down operation. During this period, the polls between Nixon and the various Democratic contenders, especially Sen. Edmund Muskie, were relatively close. Nixon especially feared the prospect of facing Alabama Gov. George Wallace; the assassination attempt that incapacitated Wallace occurred May 15, long after Liddy and Mitchell agreed to the break-in. Indeed, gathering intelligence on how the DNC planned to distribute the delegates Wallace had already won might have been one motivation for the break-in.
In a recent New Yorker article, Nixon biographer Evan Thomas said that “there were any number of steps that could have made [Watergate] go away.” Thomas argued that Nixon “could have cleaned house and fired people,” for instance.
But cutting loose the people directly responsible for individual crimes creates an incentive for them to implicate the higher-ups who managed the criminal enterprise — which was exactly what happened, accelerating news of the scandal. Nixon fired White House counsel John Dean in April 1973, and that June, Dean testified before the Senate Watergate committee about Nixon’s involvement in the coverup . Likewise, James McCord, a former CIA officer ostensibly hired to work as a security officer for the Republican National Committee, sent a letter to Judge John Sirica during the sentencing phase of his 1973 trial for the Watergate burglary, explaining that his perjury had been bought by the Nixon administration.
Even if Nixon had attempted to leave every individual implicated in Watergate high and dry, it probably wouldn’t have slowed the unspooling of the scandal, much less stopped it.
“There is an assumption that politics have always been corrupt,” one NBC retrospective on Watergate posited in 2004, “and that Nixon just got caught.” In his sweeping book on the 1970s, historian Bruce Schulman noted that the sentiment was widespread, even in the immediate aftermath of Watergate: “ ‘They all did it, Nixon just got caught,’ is what many Americans believed.”
In 1977, the conservative journalist Victor Lasky published “It Didn’t Start With Watergate,” a thick dossier on the sins of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. He had plenty of material to work with. The anti-New Deal congressman Hamilton Fish III claimed that FDR had something like an enemies list, that he was on it and that he was subjected to years of punitive tax audits because of it. President Lyndon Johnson prevented a congressional investigation of a corrupt former aide, Bobby Baker, first by pressuring friendly senators on the relevant committee to quash it, then by managing to get it postponed until after the 1964 election. And so on.
But the proven activities of the Nixon White House far surpassed anything Johnson or FDR were ever accused of. Nixon was adamant in his attempts to find wrongdoing from President John Kennedy’s administration, which was an object of personal hatred on account of his intense loathing of the personable and handsome JFK — at one point Nixon even ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution . (Deputies quietly buried the project.) Despite his extraordinary efforts, Nixon was so unsuccessful in implicating Kennedy in Watergate-level wrongdoing that, in one of his administration’s most bizarre incidents, his aide Charles Colson ordered “cables” to be forged , using scissors and glue, to falsely suggest that Kennedy ordered the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
One month after Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford pardoned him before he could go to trial for any crimes he might have committed while president. In 2001, Sen. Ted Kennedy thanked Ford for the pardon, saying, “His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.” Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, seemed to agree, saying in his 1977 inaugural address, “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
In fact, however, the pardon exacerbated the public’s distrust of government by reinforcing Americans’ sense that the president was above the law. It also cast a damaging vote of no confidence by the executive in the co-equal judicial branch of government. After the pardon, Ford’s favorability ratings plummeted overnight , and he lost his 1976 bid for reelection. And, although Americans have become more favorable toward the pardon over time, it did nothing to stop the downward trend in Americans’ trust in government accelerated by Watergate.
The role of Deep Throat (the pseudonym of FBI agent Mark Felt, who served as an anonymous source for Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward during the scandal’s unfolding) is often dramatized in Hollywood depictions of Watergate, and headlines to this day insist on his importance in Nixon’s undoing. The Guardian called him “the man who brought down Nixon, ” and Vanity Fair similarly labeled him the man who “brought down the Nixon administration.”
But by the time in 2005 that Deep Throat was revealed to be Felt — an FBI official, not a White House insider — people should have known better. Because Felt had no access to the inner workings of the White House, he was not feeding Woodward new information but merely hints about what the bureau’s investigation had uncovered, and in many cases, what the journalists reporting the Watergate story already knew. Indeed, when Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein wrote the book “All the President’s Men,” they were surprised, per Bernstein, at the mystique that developed around Felt’s role. “We didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions,” Bernstein said in a 2005 interview. “You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources.”