Sunday marks the anniversary of the Watergate break-in, an event that led to the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.
For context on the Watergate scandal’s major plot points, we turned to ABC’s former co-anchors Sam Donaldson, who covered Watergate as a correspondent for ABC News, and Cokie Roberts, who lived abroad in Greece reporting for CBS News during much of the investigation.
Donaldson said that while the individual reporters did good an enterprising works, Watergate also showed an American form of government that could self-correct.
“Whereas the press–certainly Woodward and Bernstein, and to some extent reporters from the New York Times and the L.A. Times and others–helped develop leads, it was the system and the organizations within the system, beginning with the courts” that brought Nixon down, Donaldson said. “Richard Nixon’s history for all time, I hope the lede line says, ‘First president to resign one step ahead of the sheriff.’”
And Roberts looked to what good came from Watergate.
“Many things happened as a results of Watergate, many of them positive. There was a sense in the country that the president is not above the law. There was a sense that the country’s system worked, and there was a sense that the press was vigilant and willing to go after power, even when it could be dangerous, so those were institution-building aspects of Watergate,” Roberts said.
Here are how they remember some key moments from the scandal and the aftermath:
MAY 17, ’73: THE HEARINGS
Congress holds televised hearings to investigate the Watergate burglary
Cokie Roberts: It was extraordinary. I was living in California at the time, and they mesmerized the nation in a way that nothing in Congress had since the Army-McCarthy years, and they were all over television. People just sat and watched them, and it was dramatic. You had these dramatic moments of [then-senator] Sam Ervin running that committee in this very avuncular fashion, but tough as nails. Of course you had the famous Howard Baker [quote], ‘What did the president know and when did he know it?’ …
And you had the Alexander Butterfield moment, and the committee knew it was going to happen, but we didn’t.
Sam Donaldson: You started out knowing that there was more to this than just an ordinary burglary, and you started out believing that–because it was the Democratic National Committee, that it tied into the people who wanted to help re-elect president Nixon. … But as time started to go on, I must tell you, I did not say to myself, ‘Richard Nixon, president of the United States, is covering this up and is a crook and will be found to be doing so and will be removed from the presidency.’ … All the reporters I know realized, ‘Who knows where this story is going? But it’s going to be big one way or another.’
OCT. 23, ’73: NIXON’S TAPES
The president reverses his stance and agrees to hand over, to Judge John Sirica, Oval Office recordings of his conversations about Watergate
Cokie Roberts: As I recall, there was a huge amount of speculation that, okay, if he’s turning them over, maybe there’s nothing on them. … Of course, when you started to hear what was on them, it’s just appalling. I’m afraid it’s still true with the Nixon tapes, and I hate to say that because presidential tapes are fascinating, but these are just really raw.
Sam Donaldson: On the Saturday before [Alexander Butterfield] was to testify on Monday, he was being interviewed by the staff, not even by the senators … and he said later, to us and to anyone else, he knew if he was asked a vague question, be would be vague and he would try to evade answering, but if he was asked a direct question, he would not lie–he would not perjure himself. …
[A staff lawyer] said, ‘Is there any chance that these [conversations] were being recorded?’ So this guy said, ‘Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I installed the operation to do it.’ … So on Monday, when he was questioned … he said, ‘Well, yes, I do,’ and we were all shocked, because I think at that point, there’s all this testimony, John Dean’s testimony, and others have testified–it’s he-said, she-said. … [Nixon] may suffer politically, from the standing of the Gallup poll, but nothing’s going to happen to him. But if there are tapes of the conversations, it doesn’t take a lot of brains–if those tapes reveal a cover-up of any sort, it’s another matter. From that point, most of us started thinking, ‘We don’t know about the tapes yet, but it could be very damaging.’ …
I think by that time [that Nixon agreed to release the tapes] most of us realized that the kind of obstructionism the White House was making was because very high people, certainly maybe including the president, were involved in the initial cover-up of the burglary, and maybe the burglary itself. … Now, why weren’t the tapes burned? I talked to the guy who succeeded John Dean and became counsel of the White House … I asked him later, ‘Why didn’t you burn the tapes?’ And he said, ‘Who could have burned them?’ It was clear if those tapes were burned–they’re under subpoena–that’s a crime. Earlier, before they were subpoenaed, it wouldn’t have been a crime. …
By this time, you know they had fought every step of they way. They’d fought tooth and nail, using everything they could, short of murder, to keep from turning over the tapes. … You knew that those tapes would finish him, or else they would turn it over. If those tapes had been exculpatory, they would have turned them over immediately.
NOV. 17, ’73: NIXON DECLARES, ‘I AM NOT A CROOK’
Discussing his personal finances, the president says he’s never profited from public service or obstructed justice
Cokie Roberts: It was very reminiscent of, ‘You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore,’ and so the whole kind of set of the jaw was the same. By the way, also, at the same time all of this stuff is going on, he goes off to China and does this incredible, historical moment of opening China, so the country is getting kind of mixed pictures here, at least early on. But I think that the ‘I am not a crook’ was just, the main reaction was humor … [it was] appalling but funny.
Sam Donaldson: By that time, most of us thought he probably was a crook. As I recall, we didn’t have the evidence yet, certainly not the smoking gun. The more he began to protest, but at the same time not cooperate … the more he resisted on the grounds that it was an infringement on the Constitution, on the separation of powers–oh, horse manure–if you can’t answer a question with a direct answer … why tell us that you’re not a crook? Just turn over the tapes.
NOV. 22, ’73: A GAP IN THE TAPES
Nixon’s attorney reveals 18 1/2 minutes are missing from the Oval Office recordings
Cokie Roberts: By that time I was out of the country … but obviously it lives on in blessed memory. You can say to anybody of a certain age something about an 18-minute gap, and everybody knows what you’re referring to. It’s totally part of the language, and Rose Mary Woods is totally part of the language, for people who were sentient at the time.
Sam Donaldson: The explanation [was] that Rose Mary Woods, in transcribing a tape … was listening to the tape and said that, somehow, by mistake she had her foot down on the pedal which erased the tape instead of just playing it. So you said, ‘Wait a minute–she’s transcribing the tape, and she’s erasing the tape, and she doesn’t know it?’ It doesn’t make sense. … Of course, clearly, what she was saying, if she did it herself, maybe someone else did it, was like the smoking-gun tape–was just terrible. …
Dean is saying, ‘They want money–they want money to not talk.’ And, ‘How much do they want?’ ‘I think it would take about a million dollars.’ ‘Oh, I know where to get a million dollars’–they made that sound as if they’re just blue-skying.
AUG. 5, ’74: IMPEACHMENT
The House Judiciary committee moves ahead with articles of impeachment against Nixon
Cokie Roberts: It was very peculiar to be abroad as the president of the United States for the first time in history is resigning, and very unsettling and upsetting. It clearly had to be done, and Gerald Ford was coming in … It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t like there was an Internet or television, it was working with newspapers. I was stringing with CBS, and my husband was a New York Times correspondent … It was very weird to be so far removed and to not have it in real time. … It’s just one of the most dramatic moments, and to think of [then-Reps.] Bill Cohen and Caldwell Butler, of the Republicans who broke, I mean it was a very hard time on them, and by the time I came back and started covering Congress in ’78 it was still just hovering over the institution, how everybody had behaved. …
It had an impact inside the institution for a long time to come, and the courage of the Republicans to break with their party on such an issue was really something that doesn’t happen often and I don’t think would happen today in either party.
Sam Donaldson: You could feel history. ‘Mr. Donohue?’ ‘Aye.’ ‘Mr. Edwards?’ ‘Aye.’ ‘Mr. Kastenmeier?’ ‘Aye.’ And there were six Republicans that signed on, led by a very young Republican named Bill Cohen. … All three articles were voted, and at this time you really know, the jig is up, and you really know Nixon’s in it, and the Supreme Court a couple days later ruled unanimously that the White House must torn over those tapes [to Congress].
AUG. 8, ’74: NIXON RESIGNS
Richard Nixon becomes the first president in U.S. history to resign the office
Cokie Roberts: We’ve all seen that tape over and over again, and I must say, I do feel for the family terribly in that situation. Tricia and Julie Nixon are lovely women, as was Pat Nixon, and, you know, it’s horrible and, kind of, off they go, and they are there forever in that picture with him waving at the helicopter.
Sam Donaldson: His excuse was [that] he no longer had the political capital. Because after the tapes were played, Hugh Scott, who was the [Senate] Republican leader; and John Rhodes, the Republican leader in the House; and Barry Goldwater, who was the revered elder statesman of the party, went down to the White House [and told Nixon] that if he demanded that this go on to the Senate, the House would certainly vote to full impeachment, and he would lose. He would be removed from office, and in order to avoid that he resigned. …
[Things were] very emotional in the room of the White house. He talked about his mother, and how no books would be written about her. He talked about how you had to go down to the valley in order to the at the mountaintop. … He then gets on the helicopter with that wave, and midway through his flight, he’s no longer president. …
It’s obviously the most dramatic political story I’ve covered over 50 years in Washington. … The impeachment of Bill Clinton was pale. It was nothing, whether you thought he should leave because he had lied under oath–and that’s a felony. He had committed perjury–of course he had. … But even if you think he should, it was not the kind of crime that Nixon had committed. He was not the man that Richard Nixon was, fortunately.
SEPT. 8, ’74: FORD PARDONS NIXON
Nixon’s successor as president, Gerald Ford, spares him from criminal proceedings
Cokie Roberts: The pardon was just wildly, wildly unpopular. Now, I have interviewed president Ford on the subject, and I believe him totally when he said, ‘I just couldn’t do anything’–that ‘I realized it in my first press conference that every single question I got was about Nixon and Watergate, and there was no way I could become president and move along.’
He had problems facing the country, horrible inflation, war still going on. ‘I said, “The only way to put this behind us was to get this off the docket and out of the newspapers.”‘ And then of course the pardon was in the newspapers, and everyone was convinced there was a deal, and he went to Capitol Hill and testified, highly unusual for a president …
I totally think the pardon was the right thing to do, otherwise we would have been dealing with Watergate for decades, as it worked its way through court and the appeals and all that, and you can make a case that Richard Nixon did go on to have some foreign-policy stature–future presidents all consulted him, Democrat and Republican.
Sam Donaldson: I was one of those who were deeply unhappy as a citizen. At least in those days, most of us working in the business tried to separate our personal feelings from our reportage. When Gerald Ford pardoned, about a month into his presidency, any crimes he had committed or might have committed or would commit in the future, I thought that was absolutely wrong.
In the years subsequent, I have come to believe that Ford was exactly right to do it, because the continuation of the fixation on Richard Nixon’s alleged crimes in Watergate …. would have paralyzed the country. … The ability of the country, in a political sense, to move forward would have been, if not halted, severely retarded, and it would have been not good. We were just coming out of the Vietnam war, some of the effects are still with us … if we’d continued with Watergate, it would have been the kind of one-two punch that would have been tough to get over. …
The question always is: Was there a deal? The way it works in Washington and elsewhere is, if you make a deal that’s a political deal, you don’t say it directly. … What you say is, you know, ‘I really need some help, senator. You and I have often cooperated with each other, and I sure hope I could win this vote … [if I win] I’m going to be very understanding of other people.’ … You work around it. …
My personal view, and again, you’re going to find different people with different views, is that Alexander Haig, Gen. Haig, chief of staff then to Richard Nixon and in short time secretary of State to Ronald Reagan, Gen. Haig did not go to Gerald Ford and say, ‘Now, if the president were to resign and make you president of the United States, would you pardon him?’ But I think there probably were conversations in which Haig–and maybe others, but probably Haig–discussed the trauma the country was going to have to go through if the president of the United States was put on trial in court. … One of his people, maybe not Ford himself, [probably] said, ‘I agree with you. … I know president Ford would be handicapped to some extent … you’re right, I think it would be a shame.’ You see what I’m saying–the deal’s made, but you could listen to that tape all day long.