Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sylvia from San Antonio. Sylvia Wonders, “What was the Watergate scandal ?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sylvia!
What qualities do you look for in a leader? Fairness? Intelligence? How about creativity? Communication skills? These are all important traits for a leader. Many people would add honesty to the list.
Then what should you do when a leader isn’t fair or honest? You might say, “Find a new leader, of course!” But it isn’t always that easy. When an elected leader is unfair or dishonest, you might be stuck with them for years. That is, of course, unless they break the law.
When an elected leader breaks the law, there are special steps to take them out of office. If a U.S. President breaks the law, they first have a trial in the Senate. This is called impeachment. Once a President has been impeached, the Senate votes on whether to take them out of office. Three U.S. Presidents have been impeached so far: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Neither Johnson nor Clinton were taken out of office. President Trump's impeachment is still ongoing.
Another President found himself close to impeachment during the early 1970s. And it all started with what seemed like a common crime—a break-in.
It was about 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1972. Five men forced their way into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, D.C. The office was located in the Watergate hotel and office building. When police got there, they arrested the men.
That’s when they saw what the men were carrying. They had a lot of surveillance equipment, including bugs. Bugs are small devices that are small and easily hidden. They can help someone listen to other people without them knowing it. It quickly became clear that this was no ordinary break-in. These men were trying to steal secret information from the DNC.
Some people were suspicious that the break-in was tied to the upcoming presidential election. Then it was found that one of the men—James McCord—was part of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). CREEP was a group working to re-elect President Richard Nixon.
Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post covered the case. The further they dug, the more interesting it became. They worked with a secret source, now known to be then-FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. He helped them pass along important information to the American public.
In March 1973, only months after Nixon’s re-election, the five burglars were sentenced. During his hearing, James McCord said Nixon and the White House were involved in the crime. He accused them of trying to cover it up. That May, the U.S. Senate held hearings to get to the bottom of things.
The hearings were on television. Of course, many Americans tuned in. The Senate questioned many people who had worked in the White House. In July, Alexander Butterfield gave the Senate very important information. He told them about a set of tapes that the President used to record his conversations. Many believed the tapes could prove that the President broke the law.
The Senate asked President Nixon to turn over the tapes. At first, he refused. In December 1973, Nixon finally gave the Senate seven of the nine tapes. One of them had a huge gap. Many people thought this meant Nixon had deleted part of the tape that held evidence against him.
In July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over transcripts of all nine tapes instead. Finally, on August 5, the Senate received the transcripts. They clearly showed the President had tried to cover up his role in the crime at the DNC headquarters.
Many people thought Nixon would be impeached. Instead, he became the first U.S. President in history to resign. On August 9, 1974, Nixon left office on his own. Today, the whole event is called the Watergate Scandal, after the building it started in.
Standards: C3.D2.Civ.1, C3.D2.Civ.3, C3.D2.Civ.4, C3.D2.Civ.5, C3.D2.Civ.8, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.W.7