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The Words Of Watergate
AN ANNIVERSARY LOOK BACK AT THE BIGGEST PRESIDENTIAL SCANDAL EVER, THROUGH THE CHANGES IT WROUGHT IN THE LANGUAGE
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
“I will repeat again today that no one presently employed at the White House had any involvement, awareness or association with the Watergate case.” Just twenty-five years ago this month, with national elections less than three weeks away, President Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald L. Ziegler, sought with this declaration to clamp the lid on a burgeoning scandal.
Ziegler’s statement is a classic example of Watergate-ese. By saying “presently employed,” he carefully distanced the White House from the event that gave the scandal its name—a break-in on June 17, 1972, at the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington’s Watergate complex. When reporters pressed on with questions about a recently revealed Republican campaign to disrupt Democratic primaries, Ziegler replied that “no one in the White House at any time directed activities of sabotage, spying, [or] espionage.” Here the key word was “directed.” The press secretary determinedly avoided “involved in.” Finally, all fine points of semantics aside, Ziegler’s statements were—as he himself was forced to concede six months later—not true anyway.
In the short run, though, Ziegler’s denials held up. The President’s popularity was cresting at the time. On November 7 Nixon was reelected in a landslide, receiving more than 60 percent of the popular vote, a near-record, and winning forty-nine of the states. It would be almost two years before he resigned in disgrace.
No one who was old enough to read newspapers or watch television will ever forget the events of this period, and in no small part because of the language associated with them— artfully devious in public, remarkably blunt and vivid in private. Cancer on the Presidency, deep-six, enemies list, executive privilege, expletive deleted, inoperative, Saturday-night massacre, smoking gun . These are among the Watergate words that are now ingrained in the American language, probably forever, thus sure to help the scandal endure in the popular imagination.
Nixon, a master of shameless understatement, floated “at variance with certain of my previous statements” when the tapes caught him in repeated lies.
Here, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the break-in, is a glossary of some of the words of Watergate. Together they tell much of a complex and endlessly fascinating tale.
Now (or then ).
John W. Dean III, who as counsel to President Nixon was intimately involved in the conspiracy to cover up responsibility for the break-in at the DNC offices, used “at this point in time” and “at that point in time” repeatedly when he appeared as a star witness in the last week of June 1973 at the televised hearings of the special Senate committee investigating the Watergate affair. In the public mind the phrases summed up the tenor of his testimony, much as “point of order” characterized the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.
The expressions are standard bureaucratese: Never use one word where five will do. Recalling, not so fondly, his dealings with the State Department in the Kennedy years, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., notes in A Thousand Days that the men in that department “never said ‘at this point’ but always ‘at this point in time.’” Dean’s employment of the stock phrase inspired much merriment, but it is a useful device for someone undergoing cross-examination. It gives the witness time to think ahead and frame the substance of a reply.
Dean’s testimony to the senators and at the 1974 trial of the chief conspirators (excepting the President) did not get him totally off the hook. He was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and sentenced to one to four years in prison. After four months, however, the Watergate trial judge, John J. Sirica, reduced his sentence to time served.
President Nixon was a master of the shameless understatement, exemplified by the reason he gave on August 8, 1974, for deciding to resign: “I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress.” This, after the House Judiciary Committee had voted 27-11 to impeach him and after Senate Republican leaders had told him that he might get no more than 15 of the 34 votes he would need in that house to stave off impeachment.
Nixon floated at variance with on August 5, 1974, soon after the United States Supreme Court ruled (see executive privilege ) that he had to surrender the tapes of sixty-four secretly recorded meetings, which had been subpoenaed by the special Watergate prosecutor. When releasing transcripts of these tapes, Nixon noted that portions of three conversations on June 23, 1972, which he had in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, H. R. (“Bob”) Haldeman, were “at variance with certain of my previous statements.”