“Five Held in Plot to Bug Democratic Offices Here,” said the headline at the bottom of page one in the Washington Post on Sunday, June 18, 1972. The story reported that a team of burglars had been arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex in Washington.
So began the chain of events that would convulse Washington for two years, lead to the first resignation of a U.S. president and change American politics forever.
The story intrigued two young reporters on The Post’s staff, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who were called in to work on the story. As Woodward’s notes show, he learned from police sources that the men came from Miami, wore surgical gloves and carried thousands of dollars in cash. It was, said one source, “a professional type operation.”
Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein were in their 20s when they began investigating the Watergate cover-up. (Ken Feil – TWP)
The next day, Woodward and Bernstein joined up for the first of many revelatory stories. “GOP Security Aide Among Those Arrested,” reported that burglar James McCord was on the payroll of President Nixon’s reelection committee. The next day, Nixon and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman privately discussed how to get the CIA to tell the FBI to back off from the burglary investigation. Publicly, a White House spokesman said he would not comment on “a third rate burglary.”
Within a few weeks, Woodward and Bernstein reported that the grand jury investigating the burglary had sought testimony from two men who had worked in the Nixon White House, former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. Both men would ultimately be indicted for guiding the burglars, via walkie-talkies, from a hotel room opposite the Watergate building.
In Miami, Bernstein learned that a $25,000 check for Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited in the bank account of one of the burglars. The resulting story, “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds” reported the check had been given to Maurice Stans, the former Secretary of Commerce who served as Nixon’s chief fundraiser. It was the first time The Post linked the burglary to Nixon campaign funds.
VIDEO | From the Hollywood adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,’ Post editor Benjamin Bradlee (played by Jason Robards) expresses frustration at his reporters’ sourcing.
As the two reporters pursued the story, Woodward relied on Mark Felt, a high ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as a confidential source. With access to FBI reports on the burglary investigation, Felt could confirm or deny what other sources were telling The Post reporters. He also could tell them what leads to pursue. Woodward agreed to keep his identity secret, referring to him in conversations with colleagues only as “Deep Throat.” His identity would not become public until 2005, 33 years later.
While Nixon cruised toward reelection in the fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein scored a string of scoops, reporting that:
• Nixon’s aides had run “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” on behalf of Nixon’s reelection effort.
But while other newspapers ignored the story and voters gave Nixon a huge majority in November 1972, the White House continued to denounce The Post’s coverage as biased and misleading. Post publisher Katharine Graham worried about the administration’s “unveiled threats and harassment.”
As Hunt asked the White House provide money for himself and his co-defendants, John Sirica, the tough-talking judge presiding over the trial of the burglars, took on the role of investigator, trying to force the defendants to disclose what they knew. Hunt and the other burglars pleaded guilty, while McCord and Liddy went to trial and were convicted.
As Hunt’s demands for “hush money” persisted, John Dean, a White House lawyer, privately told Nixon that there was “a cancer on the presidency.” When the FBI finally pierced the White House denials, senior officials faced prosecution for perjury and obstruction of justice. In April 1973, four of Nixon’s top aides lost their jobs, including chief of staff Haldeman, chief domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and Dean himself.
When Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler said previous White House criticisms of The Post were “inoperative,” Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting had been vindicated.