In 1974 the Watergate scandal brought down a US president. Simon Basketter looks at what the lessons are for the News of the World
One night in 1972, six men were arrested while burgling the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex, Washington DC.
They were employed by the Republican Party to find dirt on the Democrats. It wasn’t an isolated incident but part of a vast operation—run by US president Richard Nixon.
Nixon, at war in Vietnam and under pressure from an anti-war movement at home, hoped to use the information to attack the Democrats and quash domestic rebellion.
But the fallout from these arrests eventually forced Nixon to resign—the only US president that has done so.
Carl Bernstein was one of the journalists central to breaking the story of what became known as Watergate.
He wrote last week about the News of the World scandal: “The alleged lawbreaking within News Corp suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorising general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.
“Not to mention his role in the cover-up. It’s about power and the abuse of power, that’s the parallel.”
As happened to Nixon, the hacking story appears to have thrown Rupert Murdoch into freefall with no safe landing spot in sight.
Like Nixon, Murdoch sits at the heart of dirty deals, corruption and cover-up.
But this scandal also reflects a fundamental crisis across the whole of the establishment.
And like Nixon’s team, Murdoch so far has failed to convince anyone that the wrongdoing doesn’t reach up to the most senior levels.
Watergate and the phone hacking scandals had small beginnings—a break-in at a hotel, a single “rogue” reporter and a private detective.
The News of the World scandal is not just about phone hacking. It is about parliament, the police and the sinews that tie the system together.
As with Watergate, the cover-up has bigger implications than the original offence.
One of the Watergate burglars, James McCord, was on the payroll of Nixon’s re-election committee. A White House spokesman initially dismissed the story, saying he would not comment on “a third rate burglary”.
But the story unfolded.
Former CIA officer E Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G Gordon Liddy guided the burglars via walkie-talkies from a hotel opposite Watergate.
A $25,000 cheque for Nixon’s re-election campaign was found to have been deposited into the bank account of one of the burglars. The cheque had been given to Maurice Stans, Nixon’s chief fundraiser.
Attorney general John Mitchell was found to be in control of a secret fund that paid for a campaign to gather information on the Democrats.
And Nixon’s aides had run “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” to get Nixon re-elected.
Watergate occurred at a time of deep crisis for the US ruling class. Their war in Vietnam had sparked widespread opposition.
The heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people linked up with the burgeoning anti-war movement in the US, which had penetrated the army.
According to Robert Haldeman, Nixon’s former chief of staff, “Without the Vietnam war there would have been no Watergate.”
By the end of the 1960s there were half a million US troops in Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive in 1968 saw Vietnamese national liberation forces launch a coordinated military assault.
The US unleashed a frightening wave of destruction in response—but Tet marked the beginning of the end of the US military intervention.
Right wing Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 in part because he implied that he had a “secret plan” to end the war.
He raised the destruction the US inflicted on Vietnam to new heights and spread the war into neighbouring countries.
Nixon described his strategy to Haldeman: “I call it the madman theory. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached a point where I might do anything to stop the war.”
The problem with this strategy is that you have to prove you are mad.
The co-architect of the administration’s policies was Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger remarked, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.”
He gave the following instructions to his staff: “Come up with a plan for a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam.”
The plan was bombing Cambodia.
Nixon set up an elaborate system of deception to hide this from the war-weary public.
The first media report of the bombing was a small article in the New York Times. Few people noticed it. But it sparked Nixon to take the first steps down the road to self-destruction.
He set in motion what became a secret intelligence unit, answerable only to him, to plug “leaks” in the government.
Known as the “plumbers”, they were to carry out a crime spree against the president’s political enemies.
In March 1970, the US organised a coup in Cambodia and invaded. It exploded the crisis at home.
On 4 May, National Guardsmen shot dead four students at Kent State University in Ohio and wounded nine others. They were protesting against the attack on Cambodia.
In June 1971, the New York Times started publishing a secret government history of the war in Vietnam.
The “Pentagon Papers” outlined atrocities planned by the US. They fed into the anti-war movement and intensified the paranoia in the White House.
An intense spying and dirty tricks operation against the anti-war movement began.
The White House under Nixon was well suited to persecuting political enemies. “If you can’t lie,” Nixon once said, “you’ll never get anywhere.”
Egil Krogh, a White House officer, summed up the Nixon mindset: “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.”
John Dean, a White House lawyer, privately told Nixon that there was “a cancer on the presidency.”
Despite the scandal, Nixon cruised to re-election in November 1972.
But the facts kept seeping out.
To stem the growing crisis, in April 1973 four of Nixon’s top aides were sacked—chief of staff HR Haldeman, chief domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman, attorney general Richard Kleindienst and White House counsel John Dean.
An investigation into the scandal saw one White House figure after another break ranks.
In July 1973, aide Alexander Butterfield revealed Nixon had a secret tapping system that recorded his phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office.
Nixon refused to release the tapes, causing a constitutional crisis.
Nixon demanded investigators be sacked. Their bosses refused, but they were sacked anyway.
Instead of halting the crisis, it deepened it.
When Nixon declared at a press conference, “I am not a crook,” hardly anyone believed him.
In April 1974 Nixon announced the release of 1,200 pages of transcripts of conversations between him and his aides. This stoked more outrage.
Even Nixon’s most loyal supporters voiced dismay about profanity-laced discussions in the White House around how to raise blackmail money and avoid perjury.
One conversation in particular showed that Nixon had played a leading role in the cover-up from the start.
Dubbed “the smoking gun” tape, this recording eliminated what little remained of Nixon’s support.
Even his closest aides told him he had to resign or face the almost certain prospect of impeachment.
The scale of opposition to the war meant that the Watergate scandal became a constant crisis for Nixon.
As it unfolded, the people at the top realised Nixon was probably going to lose, and fell over themselves to do deals with the prosecution.
Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned in August 1974.
Watergate meant that the tight knit networks linking those at the top of society started to fracture as the establishment panicked and individuals looked for a way to save their own skin.
Something similar is happening in Britain today.
In the face of the hacking scandal, politicians have suddenly discovered a consensus—that something must be done about the media’s political influence. So they have gone from fawning over Murdoch to denouncing him.
But as with Watergate, instead of stopping the crisis, this will make it worse. With the Murdoch scandal, the institutions involved go far wider than they did in Watergate.
The police are mired in a major crisis as their endemic corruption and involvement in the cover-up emerges.
The establishment is floundering around, looking for ways to stabilise the situation, as they did with Watergate.
But attempts to stem the scandal then met with constant leaks of new information that only built the crisis.
There will be parliamentary committees, public inquiries and the like.
But as Watergate was a symptom of the crisis that rocked the US political system, so the Murdoch scandal is for the British establishment.
And its consequences could be far wider reaching.
Watergate was a drawn out process with gradual revelations.
One figure at a time came blinking into the light in disgrace. Each step was a step further up the corridors of power. It eventually reached the US president.
Today the crisis starts at the very top. The media moguls, the top cops and, most importantly, the prime minister are all already implicated.