‘Everything was amazing’ — WTOP’s Capitol Hill team on the Watergate saga

A half-century ago Friday, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom led to an investigation that gripped the country for two years and led to the U.S.’ only presidential resignation. This week, WTOP’s Rick Massimo is talking with experts about how the entire affair has affected American politics, history and even the language ever since.


When the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, WTOP Emeritus Senior Congressional Correspondent Dave McConnell was already reporting on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller was still a kid. For McConnell, the break-in and the investigation that followed constituted a story that wouldn’t stop growing; for Miller, it was the lead-in to a career in journalism. They both spoke with WTOP about their memories of Watergate — and they couldn’t resist drawing parallels to the present day.

McConnell remembered covering the break-in as a local crime story at first — “It involved something going on with some operative of the Nixon campaign,” he remembered. “And we knew that much, but we weren’t paying that much attention.”



The idea that the Watergate break-in — it was the second one, McConnell recalled; the goal was to replace malfunctioning listening devices that had been installed during an earlier break-in that wasn’t detected — would be the thread that would eventually unravel the Nixon presidency seemed unlikely.

“The idea that there might be some kind of a plot that Richard Nixon — the president — was overseeing didn’t seem likely to me,” McConnell said — “although we did know this was ‘Tricky Dick’; he had been known in the past to do some nefarious things. But at the same time, it just didn’t seem to fit.”

Miller pointed out that the term “Watergate” refers to an entire campaign of dirty tricks, break-ins and cover-ups, and that the “White House Plumbers” — the secret parallel security operation that carried out the Watergate break-in — was behind a lot of crimes and shenanigans, beginning with attempted revenge for the leak of the Pentagon Papers.

And the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate was the continuation of a campaign that essentially promoted Sen. George McGovern as the preferred candidate to take on Nixon that fall.

“They were really trying to get McGovern as the candidate to run against Nixon,” Miller said, “because they thought he was the weakest. And at one point, Ed Muskie, the senator from Maine, was considered the strongest candidate, and they had all kinds of sabotaging efforts to undermine his candidacy, including planting of false information that he had somehow said bad things about French Canadians who lived in New Hampshire.”

That was one of the things that threw McConnell when the Watergate scandal began: “It led me to believe early on when I was covering this, ‘What’s the worry about McGovern? He doesn’t have a chance.’”

Nixon won a huge victory — 49 states in the 1972 election — but the investigation and the revelations didn’t go away. The summer of 1973 was dominated by the Watergate hearings in the house and Senate.

McConnell remembered the leaders on the Senate committee: Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat, was the chair — “a feisty, Central Casting Southern character who went to Harvard and had a mind like a steel trap,” and Sen. Howard Baker, “a rising star in the Republican Party, who will go down in history as the man who coined the phrase ‘What did the president know, and when did he know it?’”

McConnell said the revelations were as gripping to him as they were to the rest of the nation. “At this point in time,” he said, “everything was amazing.”

‘You knew deep in your gut that this was wrong’

Miller said the hearings — about 50 meetings, all televised — were part of his summer, just like everyone’s, and he was soaking up the information.

“Up to that point I had, like a lot of kids, read the sports section and kept-up with sports biographies. Watergate was really my introduction to politics in the United States. And what an introduction it was, right? John Mitchell, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord, E. Howard Hunt — they were almost like mythical, fictional characters to me at some point.”

He added, “At the time, of course, I didn’t fully understand how complex this was. But at the same time, you knew deep in your gut that this was wrong.”

While the hearings went on, however, Congress kept going, McConnell said. “In the sense of a workmanlike, accomplishment situation, you had bills being passed; you had hearings, you had other things going on the Hill. … They were out to get each other on floor votes, on legislation. But they all felt at some point, ‘We’ve got to hammer out a compromise on a particular bill or a particular issue.’”

July 1, 2022 | Memories of Watergate (WTOP's Dave McConnell and Mitchell Miller)

He was listening to the hearings on WTOP the day in Oct. 1973 when White House aide Alexander Butterfield acknowledged, in response to a question from Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, that there were indeed listening devices in the Oval Office — that so many of the conversations that the committee and the nation had speculated on and argued about had in fact been recorded.

That, McConnell said, was the turning point: “That was when the world ended — when we knew that they had records of what people had been saying. We knew the jig was up.”

The jig was in fact up — after a lengthy battle to keep the tapes secret, and to provide only edited transcripts, the tapes were released, and on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.

“Richard Nixon harbored conspiratorial thoughts all of his political life,” McConnell said. “And he really was insecure, which was amazing, because some of the foreign policy things he did, some of the domestic things he did, were truly the work of a very active and accomplished political person. But he still had this doubt.”

Nixon resigned the day after a group of Republican senators led by Barry Goldwater, one of the godfathers of the conservative movement, visited him at the White House and told him the impeachment resolution, which would throw him out of office, would pass — with plenty of Republican support.

Baker, McConnell said, had been seen by some as someone who would back Nixon no matter what. It didn’t turn out like that.

“Baker started out skeptical of the hearings,” McConnell said. “But then he came very quickly to realize something really serious had happened. And he wasn’t Howard Baker, Republican; he was Howard Baker, senator. And the same thing with Sam Ervin. He didn’t look at it as a Democratic victory; he looked at [Watergate] as an assault on the government.”

Not everyone did, McConnell said; plenty of people “out there in the hinterlands still thought Richard Nixon had been tried unfairly, and it’s amazing.”

Past and present

“The feeling that I had was that this was the biggest story I’ll ever cover,” McConnell said. “Little did I know what would be happening after that.”

Neither McConnell or Miller were asked to compare the Watergate saga, and the hearings, to the Jan. 6 hearings, but they both did anyway.

“The Senate voted 77 to 0 to create the Watergate Investigative Committee,” Miller said. “Contrast that to today, where it was all that the Congress could do to come up the House Select Committee on Jan. 6. The times are so much different now in terms of bipartisanship.”

The Watergate committees had “clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing,” McConnell said, and when people saw that evidence, “they agreed with it.

Now, you have a panel, the Jan. 6 panel, doing much the same thing. And many people would say they have got a very solid case, relative to what President Trump did and what his minions did. And yet, there’s no guarantee, there’s no evidence so far that a lot of people are really changing their opinion of Donald Trump, whereas opinions did change on Richard Nixon.”

McConnell also pointed out that scandals such as Watergate began the numbing process for a lot of people to dubious Washington behavior going forward. “The shock value was very high then; it’s not so high now. You have an awful lot of competition for this kind of a scandal.”

Miller added that Watergate was an operation with plenty of subterfuge.

“You found out that there were all these things going on behind the scenes with the government that people probably didn’t really realize could even happen. And that was part of that surprise factor. Today, many of the things that former President Trump is accused of, basically, happened in plain sight.”

If somebody at the time of Watergate had said something like Jan. 6 would happen 50 years later, “people probably wouldn’t even have believed it,” Miller said. “And yet, here we are today. And there’s a sizable percentage of the population that says ‘Well, it wasn’t really that bad. It could have been worse. Get over it; start looking at other issues.’”

Trust

McConnell said it’s hard to imagine the kind of trust the government was held in when the Watergate scandal broke. Lot of people believed Nixon’s protestations of innocence because they simply couldn’t believe that the president of the United States would lie to the nation, would openly order the stonewalling of a criminal investigation. (As more Nixon White House tapes have been released over the years, it’s turned out he was implicated of arguably worse than that.)

“The Watergate saga did a lot to disabuse people of the notion that the government always acts in their interest,” McConnell said, adding that the concurrent Vietnam War controversy was another contributing factor.

“Since those times, varying issues, varying spectacles, varying episodes have come up to further erode public trust of the government,” McConnell said. “But many people think it all started with Watergate.”

For someone exposed to Watergate at Miller’s age, though, that trust was never formed in the first place. “All of those things just said to young people, well, maybe things shouldn’t be trusted.”

For Miller, it was part of the motivation to go into journalism.

“I already knew that I was going to go into journalism when I was in high school,” Miller said, calling the era “kind of the golden years. … It brought about a whole generation of journalists who really got into the business, I think, for the right reasons.”

While there’s “a lot of showbiz to broadcast journalism,” Miller said, the Watergate saga had a deep impact on journalists, future journalists and the public: “That you could actually initiate change or reform by showing that things were going the wrong way.”

“That was what really caused us to become interested in the workings or the lack of working in government. And it really has an impact to this day.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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Fifty years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate complex, we are still piecing together the story of a crime, and a coverup, that brought down a presidency. CBS News' Robert Costa talks with journalist Garrett Graff, author of "Watergate: A New History," about what we are still learning of a political tragedy, and in what ways the unfolding scandal has shaped Washington today.
Fifty years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex, we are still piecing together the story of a crime, and a coverup, that brought down a presidency.

“Watergate Breaks Wide Open,” by artist Jack David.

Joan Felt and her father W. Mark Felt appear in front of their home Tuesday, May 31, 2005, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mark Felt, 91, was second-in-command at the FBI in the early 1970s. Felt claims he was "Deep Throat," the long-anonymous source who leaked secrets about President Nixon's Watergate coverup to The Washington Post, his family said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Joan Felt and her father W. Mark Felt appear in front of their home Tuesday, May 31, 2005, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mark Felt, 91, was second-in-command at the FBI in the early 1970s. Felt claims he was “Deep Throat,” the long-anonymous source who leaked secrets about President Nixon’s Watergate coverup to The Washington Post, his family said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

G. Gordon Liddy
In this Oct. 15, 1974, file photo, G. Gordon Liddy wears a beard and a mustache upon his release in Washington. Liddy posted a $5,000 bond after serving 21 months in jail. Liddy, a mastermind of the Watergate burglary and a radio talk show host after emerging from prison, died at age 90. His son, Thomas Liddy, confirmed the death Tuesday, March 30, 2021, but did not reveal the cause. (AP Photo/File)

nixon15.jpg
H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, talks to the media in Washington in this 1973 file photo. He was convicted of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and served 18 months in prison. (AP Photo, File)

John D. Ehrlichman in a 1968 photo. He was Nixon’s White House counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs, and was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, and spent a year and a half in prison. (AP Photo)

Former U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell reads newspaper front page headline, “Indict 6 Nixon Plumbers,” inside his car as he leaves U.S. District Court in New York City, March 7, 1973. Mitchell, the personification of Nixon’s “law and order” administration, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury (he also lied to the Senate Watergate Committee) and served 19 months in prison. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Martha Mitchell (1918 – 1976), the wife of Attorney General John N Mitchell, in a 1971 photo. Her comments to the press, defending her husband as a “fall guy” in the scandal, led to her kidnapping. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fred LaRue testifies before the Senate Watergate hearing in Washington DC, July 1973 after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Rose Mary Woods
In this 1973 file photo, Rose Mary Woods, President Richard Nixon’s secretary at her White House desk, demonstrates the “Rose Mary Stretch” which the White House claimed could have resulted in the accidental erasure of part of the Watergate tapes. (AP Photo/File)

nixon13.jpg
President Nixon, left, walks to the White House with aide H.R. Haldeman in this December, 1969, photo from files. Recently released tapes capture Nixon ordering the theft of the Brookings Institution s files on Vietnam a year before the Watergate break-in, the San Francisco Examiner reported Thursday, Nov. 21, 1996. During a June 30, 1971, Oval Office conversation, Nixon asked Haldeman to take the liberal think tank s files relating to the Vietnam War, the Examiner said. (AP Photo)

nixon11.jpg
This is the the view of the Watergate complex, right, from room 723 of the former Howard Johnson Hotel in Washington Tuesday, June 17, 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which led to the downfall of President Nixon. The room was used as a look-out during the break-in of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

nixon9.jpg
Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, left, embraces Cuban exile Manuel Artime, a leader of the 1963 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, after a news conference in Miami, in this March 3, 1977 file photo. Hunt, who helped organize the Watergate break-in that led to the greatest scandal in American political history and the downfall of Richard Nixon\’s presidency, died Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007. He was 88. (AP Photo)

In this May 18, 1973, file photo, the hearing of the Senate select committee on the Watergate case on Capitol Hill in Washington. In 1973, millions of Americans tuned in to what Variety called “the hottest daytime soap opera” — the Senate Watergate hearings that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. (AP Photo)

Richard M. Nixon
In this April 29, 1974, file photo, President Richard M. Nixon points to the transcripts of the White House tapes after he announced during a nationally televised speech that he would turn over the transcripts to House impeachment investigators, in Washington. Nixon resigned to avoid being impeached in connection with the Watergate scandal. (AP Photo/File)

In this Aug. 3, 1973, file photo, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings continueon Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are: Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, Jr; Sen. Edward J. Gurney, Fred Thompson, Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr; Rufus Edmisten, Sen. Sam Ervin; Sam Dash, Sen. Joseph M. Montoya, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was absent. Testifying is Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters. (AP Photo/File)

In this Aug. 7, 1974 file photo, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., center, speaks to reporters after meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House to discuss Nixon’s decision on resigning. Flanked by Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, left and House GOP Leader John Rhodes of Arizona, right, Goldwater said Nixon has made “no decision” on whether to resign. The three top Republican leaders in Congress paid a solemn visit to Nixon, bearing the message that he faced near-certain impeachment due to eroding support in his own party on Capitol Hill. Nixon, who’d been entangled in the Watergate scandal for two years, announced his resignation the next day. (AP Photo)

In this Aug. 9, 1974 file photo, President Richard Nixon waves goodbye from the steps of his helicopter outside the White House, after he gave a farewell address to members of the White House staff. Nixon was taken to nearby Andrews Air Force Base where he boarded Air Force One for a flight to California. On Aug. 7, 1974, three top Republican leaders in Congress paid a solemn visit to Nixon at the White House, bearing the message that he faced near-certain impeachment due to eroding support in his own party on Capitol Hill. Nixon, who’d been entangled in the Watergate scandal for two years, announced his resignation the next day. (AP Photo/Chick Harrity)

Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox is surrounded by newsmen outside D.C. District Court in Washington on Friday, Oct. 19, 1973, after ousted White House counsel John W. Dean III pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct the Watergate investigation. Cox said further charges would be brought with the exception of perjury if Dean’s testimony proves false. (AP Photo)

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Fifty years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate complex, we are still piecing together the story of a crime, and a coverup, that brought down a presidency. CBS News' Robert Costa talks with journalist Garrett Graff, author of "Watergate: A New History," about what we are still learning of a political tragedy, and in what ways the unfolding scandal has shaped Washington today.
Joan Felt and her father W. Mark Felt appear in front of their home Tuesday, May 31, 2005, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mark Felt, 91, was second-in-command at the FBI in the early 1970s. Felt claims he was "Deep Throat," the long-anonymous source who leaked secrets about President Nixon's Watergate coverup to The Washington Post, his family said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
G. Gordon Liddy
nixon15.jpg
Rose Mary Woods
nixon13.jpg
nixon11.jpg
nixon9.jpg
Richard M. Nixon

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