By the summer of 1973, the Watergate affair was a full-blown national scandal and the subject of two official investigations, one led by Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, the other by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee.
Archibald Cox is sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor by Judge Charles Fahy, left, during a ceremony at the Justice Dept. in May 1973.(UPI)
Cox, a liberal Harvard Law School professor with a crew cut, had served as Solicitor General in the Kennedy administration. He was appointed by Nixon’s new Attorney General Elliot Richardson to investigate the burglary and all other offenses involving the White House or Nixon’s reelection campaign.
Ervin, a conservative Democrat best known for his interest in constitutional law, was chosen by Senate leaders to chair a seven-member investigatory committee. As the Senate Watergate Committee’s nationally-televised hearings captured national interest, Ervin’s folksy but tenacious grilling of sometimes reluctant witnesses transformed him a household name.
The scandal had spread beyond the original burglary. In April 1973, it was revealed that Watergate burglars, Hunt and Liddy, had broken into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department analyst who gave the top-secret Pentagon papers to the New York Times. Seeking information to discredit Ellsberg, they found nothing and left undetected. In May, a Senator revealed that a young Nixon staffer named Tom Huston had developed a proposal for a domestic espionage office to monitor and harass the opponents of the president. The plan, never implemented, disclosed a “Gestapo mentality,” said Sam Ervin.
John Dean was the first White House aide to break with the Nixon White House. “Dean Alleges Nixon Knew of Cover-up Plan,” Woodward and Bernstein reported on the eve of his testimony. On the stand, Dean disclosed that he had told Nixon that the coverup was “a cancer on the presidency.”
But the most sensational revelation came in July 1973, when White House aide Alexander Butterfield told the committee that Nixon had a secret taping system that recorded his phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office. When Nixon refused to release the tapes, Ervin and Cox issued subpoenas. The White House refused to comply, citing “executive privilege,” the doctrine that the president, as chief executive, is entitled to candid and confidential advice from aides.
“Thus the stage was set for a great constitutional struggle between a President determined not to give up executive documents and materials and a Senate committee and a federal prosecutor who are determined to get them,” said The Post on July 24, 1973. “The ultimate arbitration, it was believed, would have to be made by the Supreme Court.”
After protracted negotiations, the White House agreed to provide written summaries of the taped conversations to the Senate and the special prosecutor. Ervin accepted the deal but Cox rejected it. On Saturday, Oct. 20, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order, as did his top deputy Williams Ruckleshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork became the acting attorney general and he dismissed Cox. The special prosecutor’s office was abolished.
The firings, dubbed “the Saturday Night Massacre,” ignited a firestorm in Washington. Amid calls for impeachment, Nixon was forced to appoint a new special prosecutor, a prominent Texas lawyer named Leon Jaworski who had been a confidante of President Lyndon Johnson. Nixon’s credibility suffered another blow on November 20, when his lawyers informed a federal judge that one of the key tapes sought by investigators contained 18-minute erasure that White House officials had trouble explaining. When Nixon declared at a press conference: “I am not a crook,” more than a few Americans found his denial unconvincing.
On Dec. 31, 1973 Jaworski issued a report saying that besides the original seven burglars, 12 other persons had pleaded guilty to Watergate-related offenses and criminal proceedings against four more individual were in progress. Nixon rejected accusations of wrongdoing and insisted he would stay in office.
DEAN TESTIMONY (video) | NIXON: “I AM NOT A CROOK” (video)