Watergate, 40 Years Later

George Washington Today looks back on the scandal that changed the nation’s political landscape—and has some GW connections.
June 18, 2012

A George Washington engineering graduate student now resides in room 723 of GW’s Hall on Virginia Avenue (HOVA), but on June 17, 1972, the room had a more infamous occupant: Alfred Baldwin, a former FBI agent and lookout for the Watergate burglars.

As Mr. Baldwin looked on from the room in the then-Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, five men attempted to break in and wiretap the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Their connections with the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP) led to a massive investigation, indictments of top government officials, and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

GW’s University Archives houses a Watergate collection, which contains a wide range of items related to the scandal, including a copy of Nixon’s resignation letter and a signed autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, one of the scandal’s most notorious conspirators. His inscription reads: “For Room 723, My Old ‘Lookout,’ Best Wishes Room.”

The archive also includes pictures and letters from Leon Jaworski, L.L.M. ’26, who was appointed Watergate special prosecutor by Nixon in 1973. Mr. Jaworski received GW’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in 1965.

Professor of Political Management Christopher Arterton, founding dean of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, spoke with George Washington Today about the 40-year-old scandal and its implications for politics today.

Q: How did the Watergate scandal and resignation of President Nixon affect the nation’s view of the presidency and of politics?

A: We have to remember that the Watergate scandal went on for at least two years beyond the actual break-in through an unfolding drama involving aggressive entrepreneurial reporting; dramatic leaks; the appointment, investigation and firing of a special prosecutor; congressional hearings that riveted the nation; and, ultimately, an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives and the resignation. Coming on the heels of revelations that the Johnson administration had deliberately misled the nation about the justification for involvement in the Vietnam War, the Watergate crisis corroded public and journalistic confidence in the integrity of our political system.

Q: What influence did Watergate have on political campaigns and the presidency as we know it today?

A: Congressional legislation in 1975 to reform the financing of political campaigns came directly out of the perceived excesses of the Nixon re-election campaign, resulting in considerable strengthening of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. These provisions included contribution limits, disclosure of campaign income and expenditures, and public financing of presidential campaigns. In recent years, most of these accomplishments have been eroded by decisions of the Supreme Court.

After the Vietnam War and during the two years of the building Watergate crisis, there was much talk about the “Imperial Presidency,” symbolically captured by Nixon’s decision — quickly withdrawn — to dress the White House guards in uniforms that looked more appropriate to Buckingham Palace. Nixon was followed by Ford and Carter, both of whom were not seen as particularly strong, so the issue faded, only to be revived somewhat by George W. Bush’s initiatives following 9/11 under the banner of national security.

Q: The news media — namely, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—played a large role in uncovering the scandal. Did they change forever news reporting? Does the news media continue to play a similar watchdog role today?

A: In general, journalists became much more skeptical about the statements and actions of politicians, elected officials and those in power. Instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt and at times burying information and revelations in the name of national security or a zone of privacy (e.g., JFK’s womanizing), journalists today have an overly (in my opinion) cynical view of politicians and the political process. A much more profound impact has been the fragmentation of “legacy media” and the rise of cable and Internet communications. The proliferation of news channels has led to unbridled competition, a 24/7 news cycle and the rise of partisan media in the effort to define a stable audience.

Q: Watergate was 40 years ago, yet the scandal stays very much alive in the news, books and other media. What is it about the Watergate scandal that keeps us interested four decades later?

A: The Watergate scandal is still alive and current because, if unexposed, it could have been a first major step down the road toward the disintegration of American democracy.

Q: Although many GW students are passionate about politics, they might not know that room 723 in HOVA served as a lookout room for Watergate burglars. Is it important that today’s students know about Watergate? What lessons can they draw from the scandal?

A: Defenders of the Nixon administration frequently referred to the break-in as a “third-rate burglary.” In terms of the overall crisis, that may be accurate, except that the event exposed an aggressive, extensive behind-the-scenes effort to distort the 1972 presidential election.

GW students should know the history of HOVA room 723 but, more importantly, understand that abuses of power can occur in American politics, that the efforts of over-zealous political supporters can go far beyond the bounds of propriety and legality, that efforts to cover-up malfeasance are often much worse that the original sin, and that the only real protection a democracy enjoys is the diligence of its citizens in insisting that those seeking political power play fairly within the norms of democratic institutions.