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1973 Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The Watergate Bursts

On March 23 seven men appeared in a Washington, D.C., courtroom to be sentenced for their parts in the Watergate burglary, a break-in by Republican operatives at Democratic-party headquarters the previous June. At 10:00 A.M. Judge John Sirica made his entrance, but before announcing the sentences, he declared that a “preliminary matter” had to be taken care of. He then read a letter he had received from one of the defendants, James W. McCord, Jr. By the time Judge Sirica was finished, a few minutes later, the Watergate affair had exploded from an incident into a scandal.

McCord was a retired CIA employee who had been hired as a “security consultant” by the Republicans. In that role he had planned the bungled Watergate burglary and numerous other spying activities. McCord’s letter said that after his arrest administration figures had pressured him to plead guilty. It accused witnesses at the trial of committing perjury and asserted that “others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial.” McCord said he felt “whipsawed”: He faced a stiff sentence if he did not cooperate with prosecutors, yet he feared for his safety if he told what he knew.

McCord requested a private meeting with Judge Sirica to discuss his charges, since he did not trust the Justice Department or the FBI. A few hours later, though, McCord made such a meeting superfluous by offering to talk to a Senate committee that had just begun to consider Watergate.

McCord revealed a wide-ranging conspiracy to spy on Nixon’s enemies, with approval at the highest levels.

The so-called Ervin Committee (after its chairman, Samuel J. Ervin, Jr., a North Carolina Democrat) had been appointed in early February, with only mild fanfare, to look into a set of questions that seemed small potatoes at the time. For example, the original burglary still looked a bit suspicious after a trial that had uncovered little about who was behind it. Also, a lawyer named Donald Segretti had overseen a series of pranks and “dirty tricks” during the Democratic primaries, and the committee wondered how much the administration knew about them. Beyond these matters, scattered hints of a cover-up were starting to emerge. One top aide to President Nixon admitted being told about possible White House involvement in the Watergate burglary a day or two after it happened, but he dismissed the tip as “a routine kind of thing.” In the Nixon administration, it was.

McCord’s disclosures vastly expanded the committee’s horizons. In private meetings he told the senators of a wide-ranging conspiracy to spy on the Democrats and other enemies, with planning and approval at the highest levels. That summer televised hearings would bring shocking revelations almost daily. One persistent question became a leitmotif for the entire mess: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” As things turned out, he knew plenty.

Almost as strange as the slow self-destruction of one of America’s most popular Presidents was the spectacle of Sam Ervin, who less than a decade earlier had worked tirelessly to defeat civil rights legislation, suddenly becoming the darling of the American left. His triumph was the last gasp of the old Southern conservative…Northern liberal Democratic coalition. In between folksy anecdotes the wily old country lawyer, who had learned a few things about campaign activities during his half-century in North Carolina politics, ruthlessly interrogated witnesses ranging from eyeball-deep conspirators to clueless flunkies. A flurry of indictments and resignations soon revealed how pervasive the rot had been throughout the Nixon administration, and by August 1974 the President himself was gone.

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