The Case of Watergate

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

In 1972 Richard Nixon was a popular President. He had improved U.S. relations with China and the Soviet Union. He had won reelection in 1972 by a wide margin. As he began his second term, Nixon seemed on top of the world. But then things fell apart.

Nixon's troubles began during the 1972 campaign. The Democratic party had its headquarters in a high-rent building in Washington, D.C. The name of the building was Watergate.

One night a guard at the Watergate noticed someone had taped a door lock. He called the police. They found five men in the Democratic headquarters. The men were arrested for burglary.

It looked like some spy mission against the Democrats. The President said that his aides had nothing to do with the burglary.

But many people thought the President and his assistants were trying to "cover up" the burglary. Investigations showed that several persons working for Nixon had been involved. It seemed that they were trying to cover their tracks. But was Nixon involved, too?

Other questions were also raised. "Watergate" came to stand for more than just a burglary. It even meant more than a "cover-up." It also came to mean:

  • receiving secret campaign gifts from big companies; these gifts were against the law;

  • playing "dirty tricks" on Democratic candidates during the 1972 election campaign;

  • attempting to use the FBI and other government agencies against political enemies;

  • setting up a secret group to carry out unlawful activities against political enemies.

For more than a year, Watergate stayed in the news. Investigators kept uncovering new facts. President Nixon said again and again that he had never tried to keep the truth from the American people. But many people came to believe that the president was not telling the truth.

A bill of Impeachment was introduced in the House of Representatives. The next step was for a committee of the House to examine the charges. After months of study, the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that President Nixon be impeached. Now it was up to the full House to decide whether the president should be impeached, charged with crimes and put on trial in the Senate.

Before the vote could be taken, a bombshell hit. In July 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the president had to give up tapes of conversations about Watergate he had made two years before. In August the President released these tapes to the public. They showed that Nixon had known about the cover-up all along.

Even many people who supported Nixon were shocked. It appeared certain that he would be impeached by the House. It also looked as if the Senate would vote to remove him from office. On August 9, 1974, Nixon gave up his office. He became the first person ever to resign as President of the United States.

Vice-President Gerald Ford replaced Nixon as president. Ford was an appointed vice-president, having been named to the office almost a year before when the then Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned under pressure. Agnew himself had been accused of misconduct and was found guilty of tax evasion shortly after his resignation. Ford was the first president to serve who was not elected either to the office of president or vice-president.

Adapted from The Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Scholastic Inc., 1989.

  • Subjects:
    American History, The Presidency