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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
Indisputable proof of guilt .
As Americans pored over the twelve-hundred-plus pages of White House transcripts publicly released on April 30, 1974, the proverbial smoking gun in the hand of a murderer became a metaphor for the elusive piece of evidence needed to prove that President Nixon himself had conspired to obstruct justice. The evidence in the transcripts was suggestive but not conclusive, partly because they had been cleaned up (see expletive deleted and stonewall ) and partly because of the ambiguous, meandering nature of many of the presidential conversations. Not until August 5, 1974, when the President was forced to turn over the tape of his meeting on June 23, 1972, was the smoking gun found (see at variance with ). After that Nixon was President for only four more days.
Smoking gun also outlived Watergate. For example, Thomas L. Friedman used the term in a New York Times column earlier this year: “Officials stress that while they have some circumstantial evidence that Iran may be linked to the Dhahran bombing, there is still no ’smoking gun.’”
To impede an investigation by refusing to reveal information; to cover up .
President Nixon and his men talked a lot about stonewalling. Thus, discussing prospective testimony of H. R. Haldeman’s aide Gordon C. Strachan, who had known about Creep’s espionage plans, John Dean told Nixon on March 13, 1973: “Strachan is as tough as nails. He can go in and stonewall and say, ‘I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.’”
Nixon himself told his chief aides on March 22, 1973, referring to forty coming hearings of the Senate Watergate committee: “I don”t give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up, or anything else, if it’ll save it—save the whole plan. That’s the whole point.”
The Watergate break-in .
Very early on the morning of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a watchman at the Watergate hotel-office-apartment complex, noticed that doors connecting an underground parking garage to the main office building had been taped to prevent them from locking. He removed the tape. Returning to the area on his rounds a half-hour later, at about 1:50 A.M., he saw that the locks had been retaped. Wills telephoned the police. Three members of the tactical squad of the Washington metropolitan force responded. They proceeded to search the building from the top down. In the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic National Committee, they found Creep’s security coordinator, James W. McCord, Jr., and four men from Miami, who proved to have ties to the CIA and anti-Castro groups. The intruders were outfitted with cameras, telephone bugging equipment, and a walkie-talkie.
As news items go, this seemed at first to be an odd but distinctly minor incident. In New York the television announcer Jim Hartz could barely control his laughter as he read the bulletin. Two days later, on June 19, speaking to reporters in Key Biscayne, Florida, where the President was vacationing, Ron Ziegler fended off questions about the break-in, saying, “I am not going to comment from the White House on a third-rate burglary attempt.”
Actually this was the second “third-rate” burglary at the DNC offices. The first had taken place on Memorial Day weekend, when McCord and the Miamians had photographed documents and placed bugs on telephones used by the Democratic party chairman, Lawrence F. O’Brien, and another party official. Unfortunately the bug on O’Brien’s phone hadn’t worked well. It was mainly to replace this bug that the burglars returned to the scene two weeks later.
When Wills discovered the taped door and called the police, the dispatcher initially radioed a uniformed officer. But this policeman, low on gas and behind on paperwork, asked if someone else could respond, and the plainclothes tactical officers, driving an unmarked car, were nearest to the Watergate complex. From a room in the Howard Johnson Motor Inn across the street, another member of the Hunt-Liddy team, Alfred C. Baldwin III, was monitoring the break-in, walkie-talkie in hand. Baldwin, a former FBI agent, saw the three policemen arrive but was not alarmed because they were dressed casually. Not until lights began going on and off as the search progressed, and he saw men with flashlights and guns in their hands, did Baldwin figure out what was happening. The burglars had turned off their walkie-talkie, but Baldwin was able to warn Hunt, enabling him and Liddy to depart quickly and quietly from the hotel section of the complex. Had a uniformed officer in a marked car appeared and Hunt gotten the warning earlier, he probably would have been able to alert McCord and the Miamians in time for them to escape.
The Watergate scandal—and its subsequent enrichment of our language—would never have happened.