Fifty years ago today, Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate complex noticed suspicious activity around the offices of the Democratic National Committee and alerted the police. Five men were arrested in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, and charged with attempted burglary and trying to plant bugs to intercept telephone communications. Within hours, a former Republican congressional candidate named G. Gordon Liddy contacted one of President Nixon’s top aides to inform the White House that the arrested men were doing the dirty work of the president’s reelection campaign, and a massive cover-up began.
While Nixon’s press secretary dismissed the incident as “a third-rate burglary attempt,” the president ordered White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to scuttle the FBI’s inquiry into the funding of the burglary—an investigation that was sure to make the connection between the criminal conspirators and Nixon’s campaign organization, the Committee to Reelect the President.
The White House machinations proved to be a temporary fix. When investigators ramped up their inquiries, and when Americans started paying serious attention to the fact that their commander in chief was a crook, Nixon’s presidency unraveled. But the cover-up was a huge success in the fall of 1972 when—despite the mounting evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing—voters reelected the president with ease.
The opportunity to hold the Republican president to account when it mattered most was lost in no small part because of lethargy on the part of prominent players in both major parties. They did not want to push too hard on political corruption issues in an election year when the Democratic Party was deeply divided, and political and media elites simply assumed that the powerful and vindictive Nixon could not be beat.
Might things have turned out differently if there had been a more aggressive push for accountability in the fall of 1972? That’s a genuine possibility. And the history offers a lesson for contemporary investigators of the transgressions of former President Donald Trump and his Republican associates. What members of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol should recognize is this: Going soft on accountability in an election year—whether it’s 1972 or 2022—denies voters the clarity necessary to make the right choices.
The truth that Nixon sought to obscure was becoming evident in the fall of 1972. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had, in September and October of that year, published vital stories linking the Watergate break-in to an ambitious spying program organized by Nixon’s campaign. Even with this information, however, the inquiry proceeded at a plodding pace and with a narrow agenda. Nixon and his aides had little trouble perpetuating the myth that the president was in no way associated with a scheme to sabotage not just Democrats but democracy itself.
“The Watergate affair,” histories remind us, “had little impact on the 1972 election.”
But it might have, had a tougher line been taken on behalf of accountability.
Had a firm focus been placed on political corruption when evidence of wrongdoing was mounting, and had Democratic and Republican insiders put the country ahead of their election-year machinations, American history could have taken a different turn. Unfortunately, the focus was blurred, not just because of Republican cover-ups but also because many top Democrats were disinclined to call out the president at a time when prominent Democratic members of Congress, governors, and senators were formally supporting a rogue “Democrats for Nixon” campaign. Many of them simply thought, as Elizabeth Drew noted after the campaign, that “McGovern was not the rightful nominee of the Democratic party.”
At a time when Democrats should have been united in calling for accountability, and when investigators should have aggressively followed the trail that led to Nixon, the opposition party was in disarray. Progressive forces had succeeded in upsetting the old guard and nominating for the presidency South Dakota Senator George McGovern, an anti–Vietnam War liberal who proposed to expand the party’s commitment to economic, social, and racial justice. The political establishment of both parties rejected McGovern, even when the senator declared in September that the scandal went “right to the heart of the moral standards of this nation.”
In September 1972, after a federal grand jury indicted the Watergate burglars and a pair of former Nixon White House aides, yet failed to take the next logical step, McGovern declared, “From the first count to the last, the Federal grand jury indictment returned yesterday in the Democratic bugging case spells whitewash.”
The Democratic presidential nominee went on to charge “that this blatant miscarriage of justice was ordered by the White House to spare them embarrassment in an election year.”
With laser-like focus on the issues that had been left unaddressed, McGovern explained that “the Nixon Administration asks us to believe that the Watergate Five, plus two lowly White House operatives, dreamed up and carried out this shabby scheme to spy on the Democratic party all on their own, with no authority from above. The administration, with its total control of the grand jury, asks us to ignore the diversion of $114, 000 in secret campaign funds into the hands of this political espionage squad.”
And he said, “The questions left unanswered by that grand jury are staggering”:
¶ “Who ordered this act of political espionage?
¶ “Who paid for it?
¶ “Who contributed the $114, 000 that went from the Nixon campaign committee to the bank account of one of the men arrested, and that paid off the spies for their work?
¶ “Who received the memoranda of the tapped telephone conversation?”
McGovern’s questions were spot-on. But they never really gained traction. The fall campaign focused on the Democratic nominee’s missteps and Nixon’s supposed accomplishments—Watergate was an afterthought. Though Democrats controlled Congress, it was not until February 1973 that the Senate established a select committee to investigate Watergate, with conservative North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin as its chair.
In the meantime, Nixon continued his presidency as the triumphal winner of a landslide reelection victory. The narrative of the era went askew. Politicians and pundits, many of them Democrats, came to accept the notion that nothing could have upended the Republican’s bid, and that Watergate only caught up with Nixon after he was well into his second term.
But what if accountability had become a priority in 1972?
No doubt, McGovern’s campaign that year was flawed. He failed to control the convention that nominated him. He chose and then rejected Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate. He lost key labor endorsements. Money was tight. And yet, had voters gotten clarity about Watergate, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that things could have been different.
Had the accountability process sped up, had it taken hold at the time when it mattered most, it’s hard to imagine that Nixon would have gotten his landslide. When I got to know McGovern in his later years, he told me about what it was like for him walking through airports during that period. As the Watergate inquiry took off and Nixon’s approval rating crashed to just 27 percent in the fall of 1973, he said, people stopped him to say they’d always been on his side. Eventually, he could not go through terminals without being stopped dozens of times by folks who assured the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee that they’d voted for him.
The more people knew about Watergate, the more they wanted to believe they had voted for McGovern in 1972, recalled the former candidate. “But the math didn’t quite make sense,” he added, “because if all of them had voted for me, I would have been elected.”