Tuesday, June 20th, 1972 was Richard Nixon’s first day back at the White House after five well-dressed men—some apparently linked to his re-election campaign—had been arrested Saturday morning at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon had been at his vacation home in Key Biscayne, Florida, when word of the arrests first spread—his aides were spread across the country, too—and, as later investigations made clear, it was only when they reconvened in D.C. that the attempted cover-up kicked into high gear. Tuesday, June 20th, was the day when the White House tape recorders recorded what would later become the infamous 18 ½-minute gap, erased for still-unknown purposes.
Yet arguably that day’s biggest political development came not in D.C. but in Brooklyn: There, a political newcomer named Elizabeth Holtzman shocked the New York and Washington establishments by defeating the fifty-year incumbent congressman, Emanuel Celler. The thirty-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Radcliffe eked out a victory by just 610 votes among 31,000 ballots—an upset, and a generational shift no less momentous than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, in 2016.
The victory by Holtzman—until then the youngest-ever congresswoman— immediately reshuffled Capitol Hill. Celler had long headed the House Judiciary Committee; he was replaced by Representative Pete Rodino, whose name—and whose methodical investigation—would, a year later, become as well known as the burglary itself. “If the impeachment process had gone to the Judiciary Committee under Manny Celler, it would have died there,” Democratic leader Tip O’Neill later wrote. Yet long before anyone was even whispering that the burglary might lead to a such a climax, the door was opening to just that. No one understood it that night, but as Jimmy Breslin wrote later, “The primary election between Holtzman and Celler could be considered one of the most meaningful elections the nation has had.”
The generational shift from Celler to Holtzman and the hand-off to Rodino were key milestones in the upheaval that swept across the capital from 1972 to 1974, as the scandal that would eventually sink Nixon unfolded.
Viewed a half-century later, Watergate stands in many ways as the dividing line between old Washington and the new, marking a sea change in power, institutional dynamics, and politics that heralded most all of what followed. Watergate stands simultaneously as the last scandal of the previous era—when segregationists ruled Capitol Hill, World War I veterans walked its hall, and the city’s rhythms were driven by print newspaper deadlines—and the first scandal of a new one, in which Americans doubted their government, a rambunctious media questioned the president, and the children of the Vietnam era took the reins of power.
The scale, breadth, and depth of change that the scandal delivered to the nation’s capital still staggers. Today, we are living in a political system shaped in myriad ways by Watergate.
Watergate shaped modern Washington. For starters, Nixon’s administration ushered in a generation of future figures—George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Paul Volcker, Al Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, Pat Buchanan, William Safire, and many others—and his campaign’s Southern strategy set in motion a shift in the Republican Party that elevated Ronald Reagan and the Bush family and a particular breed of cynical partisanship that would continue well into the twenty-first century.
Seemingly no corner of Washington would be left untouched by Nixon’s turmoil.
In ways we often forget, the scandal is impossible to disentangle from the Vietnam War, which compromised everyone it touched, exposed the impossibility of American consensus, and began to unravel the nation’s faith and trust in its leaders. The disdain and the cynicism of today leveled at the federal government would horrify a pre-Watergate America. “To view Watergate in perspective, it is essential to remember that it occurred when presidential power was great,” says Donald Sanders, a Watergate senate investigator. “One did not lightly contemplate accusations of serious misconduct within the White House.”
Similarly, the shock at the revelations of the Pentagon Papers is hard to imagine today because we’re so used to being misled by our leaders. But in June 1971, when the Papers came out and kicked off a decade of exposés of government lies and abuses of power, the media had little tradition of questioning the official accounts. The D.C. press were more scribes than inquisitors. Watergate dramatically changed that.
It was a lasting change: Today, Bob Woodward still drives the national political agenda like almost no other journalist, even as generations of journalists inspired by his work—or, more accurately, inspired by the portrayal of Woodward, by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, by Dustin Hoffman, in 1976’s All the President’s Men—have filled the ranks of every newsroom in the city and beyond.
Watergate became the scandal that literally defined all subsequent political scandals; “-gate” became the suffix of choice to denote any snafus of serious proportions—from the original follow-on, 1976’s Koreagate, about South Korean influence in Congress (an issue that hit some of the same players as Watergate itself), to Bill Clinton’s Travel-Gate and Monica-Gate, to the New England Patriots’ Deflate-Gate, to Ariana Grande’s Donut-Gate, to the disproven conspiracy theory Pizza-Gate.
As the impact of Watergate spread, it caused seismic institutional change on Capitol Hill, inspiring the creation of modern congressional oversight and, after Nixon’s resignation, ushering in a new class of civic-minded representatives and senators. Until then, there was also not much of a track record of congressional investigations; high-profile inquiries were more the exception than the norm. One member of the Senate Watergate Committee, James Hamilton, would go on to write the definitive history of congressional investigations, The Power to Probe, a book that underscored how few analogues existed at the time. Hamilton cites, for instance, Congress’s attempt to investigate the debacle at Bull Run at the opening of the Civil War.
But as committee head Sam Ervin and his colleagues soon learned, there was fame to be had in oversight in the television age. The Ervin committee’s “must-see TV” hearings in the summer of 1973—as John Dean told of a White House run amok, and giants like John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman stonewalled and obfuscated—captured the nation’s attention. All three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, carried the hearings live daily, ultimately airing more than two hundred thirty-seven hours of public testimony, of which the average American home watched around thirty hours. Ervin became a national star. Similarly, the follow-up work by Rodino’s committee the following spring turned him into one of the country’s best-known politicians.
The electoral fallout was massive. The fall midterms after Nixon’s resignation, in August 1974, ushered in a wave of Democratic lawmakers. So young were many of the dozens of new representatives and senators who surged into Washington that the class of ’74 was nicknamed the Watergate Babies. All told, there were ninety-two new members of Congress that season, including seventy-five Democrats. Their energy helped transform the House and the Senate, beginning a sea change that would upend the staid institutions, democratize power beyond the committee chairs, and usher in an age of transparency and oversight that would sharply limit their clubby atmosphere. By the time Tip O’Neill became Speaker, in 1977, only fifteen of the two hundred eighty-nine Democrats predated his own arrival to the House, and three in five had arrived that decade. (The last of the Watergate Babies, my home state senior senator, Patrick Leahy, just announced he’ll retire and leave office this fall.)
Some of the most significant changes inspired by Watergate came when Congress began to reform the nation’s privacy, surveillance, and intelligence laws, to prevent future administrations and agencies from similar abuses of power. Over the course of the year following Nixon’s resignation, Senator Ervin pushed through three major bills to that effect: One that sharply limited a president’s ability to “impound” funds appropriated by congress; a second that stopped Nixon himself from gaining access to the recordings of his White House taping system; and a third, the so-called Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, that followed through on campaign-finance reform. Ervin’s work at the federal level was hardly anomalous; in the two years between the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s resignation, forty-two states passed new campaign finance laws.
The Watergate investigations also tore away the protective cloak of secrecy that had long kept politicians from delving too deeply into the work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Neither the FBI nor the CIA would ever be the same.
Idaho senator Frank Church led a new select committee to investigate other possible actions U.S. intelligence agencies had undertaken without congressional knowledge; New York representative Otis Pike in the House led a similar probe. They both found plenty areas of concern. The revelations from the Church and Pike committees—that the CIA had spied on domestic political opponents, carried out assassinations overseas, and experimented with LSD on unwitting Americans—further rocked the nation’s already shaken trust in government post-Watergate; a series of reform efforts blossomed, and new, restricted regimes of surveillance and intelligence powers came into use. “Watergate did what the Bay of Pigs had not: It undermined the consensus of trust in Washington, which was a truer source of the Agency’s strength than its legal charter,” observed Thomas Powers, who wrote a biography of CIA Director Richard Helms. “Watergate made the CIA fair game.”
The abuses by the FBI appeared equally rampant. The bureau had kept files on five hundred thousand Americans whose political beliefs it considered suspect. Altogether, it had run more than two thousand so-called Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operations against not just Communists and hate groups, but also civil rights organizers, women’s rights advocates, and other civic reformers. The fault for these abuses fell, the Church committee wrote, to “the long line of Attorneys General, Presidents, and Congresses who have given power and responsibility to the FBI, but have failed to give it adequate guidance, direction, and control.” The first reform resulting from these revelations, the Privacy Act of 1974, rewrote the government’s pact with its citizens; others, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, laid out tight controls about wiretaps and other investigative methods, ensuring a multi-branch system of checks and balances that would mitigate against the future amassing of power once solely held by former FBI director-for-life J. Edgar Hoover.
Most of all, though, the investigative spotlight in the wake of Watergate has fallen on the Oval Office itself: A whole generation of independent counsels and special prosecutors, from Iran-Contra’s Lawrence Walsh to Whitewater’s Ken Starr to Russiagate’s Robert Mueller, owe their lineage and model to Watergate’s Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski; and they’ve found their work guided and bound by the legal decisions and precedents set during the Watergate scandal—not the least of which, as Robert Mueller found, was the Justice Department’s conclusion that presidents are immune from criminal prosecution while in office.
Even as subsequent presidents have cursed the investigative zeal inspired by Nixon’s misconduct, they have him to thank for their most important protection: It was Nixon’s court battle over the White House tapes that established the legal precedent of executive privilege.
Before Nixon, the idea that presidents could prevent the disclosure of their confidential communications remained ill-defined. While more than a dozen presidents over the years had blocked congressional requests for such materials, Dwight Eisenhower had been the first to explicitly lay out the idea that a commander-in-chief needed to receive confidential advice without the fear of later subpoenas or inquiry. “There is no business that could be run if there would be exposed every single thought that an adviser might have, because in the process of reaching an agreed position, there are many, many conflicting opinions to be brought together,” he’d argued. “If any commander is going to get the free, unprejudiced opinions of his subordinates, he had better protect what they have to say to him on a confidential basis.”
Nixon asserted this idea of executive privilege amid Watergate, and his administration battled both the judiciary and legislative branches over the idea. “Executive privilege is a constitutionally founded, historically accepted, and vital principle of American government,” Attorney General Richard Kleindienst told Congress at the time. Erwin would have none of it: “It’s executive poppycock,” he thundered to reporters in April 1973. “It’s akin to the divine right of kings, which passed out of existence in America in the Revolution.” But even as it commanded Nixon to turn over his White House tapes, the Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the existence of executive privilege.
The legacy of Watergate in modern Washington might have been best summed up by Nixon’s successor. Speaking years later to Bob Woodward, Gerald Ford described the atmosphere he’d inherited as president like so: “The mood was mean.” Arguably, that’s the most lasting legacy of Nixon’s approach to politics and the legacy of Watergate. The combination of an inquisitive press, an adversarial congress, the avalanche of lies from officials, the decline of trust in institutions, and a presidency poised to fight—all of that introduced a coarseness and an unpleasantness to national politics that we still struggle against.
In the end, Watergate turned Washington mean.
This essay is adapted from Watergate: A New History (Avid Reader Press, February 15, 2022).