To recall June 17, 1972, is to remind Americans of the advice of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, to maintain eternal vigilance.
Early that day, Washington, D.C. police arrested five burglars in the office of the Democratic National Committee, housed in the Watergate complex on the banks of the Potomac River. The arrest set in motion a chain of events that led directly to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974. Between those dates, all three branches of the federal government and the media became intimately involved and the nation's attention became increasingly absorbed. America would get a rare glimpse at just how rotten an unchecked executive branch could become. And on the eve of the president's resignation, the country exhibited one of the deepest consensuses in history on a question of utmost importance and widespread awareness:
Is the president of the United States above the law?
The Watergate burglars drew immediate attention as they went about their business. All five wore business suits and surgical gloves. One carried $814 and another had $800. The walkie-talkie they possessed operated on a channel authorized for the exclusive use of the Republican National Committee. All had rooms at the Watergate Hotel. When police searched the rooms they found 32 $100 bills, sequentially numbered. When arraigned, one stated his profession as anticommunist and the others nodded agreement. James W. McCord was security coordinator of the Committee for the Re-election of the President and retired security consultant at the Central Intelligence Agency. Two of the five carried address books that listed the name of E. Howard Hunt. On the White House payroll, Hunt had the title of consultant to Charles Colson, one of Nixon's closest assistants.
The jig was up.
Watergate, in essence, was an attempt to rig the 1972 presidential election, as one of Nixon's speechwriters, William Safire, and Senate Watergate Committee chief counsel Sam Dash both stated. The objective of the dirty tricks was to derail Sen. Edmund Muskie's campaign to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. Seventeen corporations made illegal contributions to give Nixon an unfair financial advantage. Campaign financing and its associated problems continued to tarnish elections.
Still, save for the arrogance of the administration, the bungled break-in very likely would have vanished into history. Had Nixon simply fired the CREEP staff and anyone else responsible, the break-in would have remained a minor embarrassment. Instead, the president and his closest aides covered up the crimes, committing abuses of power, obstruction of justice, and perjury. He and his advisers utilized crisis analysis and exaggerated rhetoric to rationalize illegal actions.
To Nixon, the ends justified the means. The Wall Street Journal once commented that politicians, especially presidents, believe that their re-election is in the national interest. Thus, how he won re-election was nobody's business but that of Nixon's own administration. The two foremost officials responsible for enforcing the law, the president and the attorney general, both knowingly violated it to help Nixon win. In fact, G. Gordon Liddy first presented the intelligence plan that included break-ins and telephone taps to Attorney General John Mitchell in his office.
But this defiance backfired, as a distrust of government kindled during the administration of Lyndon Johnson and stoked by the disaster in Vietnam enflamed the national press, awakening an investigatory journalism that remains central to media today.
Young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein traced the burglars' money to Kenneth Dahlberg, Midwest chairman for the finance committee of CREEP, who had sent campaign contributions to Maurice Stans, chairman of the finance committee of CREEP. Stans gave checks to G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and CREEP's general counsel, who in turn sent checks to the senior burglar, Bernard Barker, who converted the checks into the hundred-dollar bills found in the rooms of the burglars.
On September 15, 1972, a federal grand jury indicted the five burglars, Hunt, and Liddy on a series of charges. Liddy had planned the operation with the assistance of Hunt, and they were at Watergate during the break-in but not in the office of the DNC.
And the rest is a history lesson, constantly being retaught.
In the name of national security, President George W. Bush presided over an administration that ordered covert telephone wiretaps, imprisoned "enemy combatants" without due process, tortured prisoners, and misled the public. To Bush, he was acting to keep Americans safe, and so how he did it was nobody's business but that of his administration.
As he left office, President Nixon admitted that some of his judgments were wrong, but claimed that whatever actions he took were in the nation's interest. President Bush and, especially, his vice president, Dick Cheney, have made no such admissions, defiantly defending their status as the keepers of national security.
History will be the only judge in their case. But sixty-five years ago, Learned Hand, one of this country's most important judges who never sat on the Supreme Court, reminded Americans that "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no courts can save it...."