While millions of Americans vividly remember where they were when they heard of John F. Kennedy's assassination, few recall what they were doing on June 17, 1972, or even why that date is so important.
I do. I was part of the press corps following the campaign of George McGovern, who, by that time, had wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination. A wire-service report said there had been a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Only later did we learn that those who broke in were agents of the Richard Nixon reelection campaign.
Political scandal of the century
Thus - 25 years ago - began what is widely regarded as the biggest political scandal of the century. Perhaps historians some 50 or 100 years from now will rank the Teapot Dome scandal of Harding's day as deserving of equal condemnation. Or perhaps some other president will commit sins that outdo those of his predecessors. We certainly hope not.
What is largely forgotten today by those who look back and try to recreate Watergate is what a "nothing" event it appeared to be at the beginning. Mr. McGovern mentioned the break-in during one of his speeches at the time, implying (because he couldn't have known yet) that this was caused by Republican shenanigans. But the suggestion didn't stir up much interest.
My colleagues in the press didn't see the break-in as all that important, either. Some saw it simply as an enigmatic act by some Cuban-Americans who had it in for the Democratic Party. Most of those I talked to at the time simply shrugged their shoulders.
Oh, yes, I remember that one old-timer in the news media said it might be a Republican "dirty trick," an effort to dig up some dirt that could be used against the Democrats. Then he said something to this effect: "[It's] like what the Democrats did when they took stuff out of the Goldwater campaign headquarters during his 1964 presidential campaign."
Yet, absolutely no one then and until a considerable time later foresaw that this was the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon as president. Looking back on Watergate recently, McGovern said the final outcome of that scandal showed him that our system works. "I only wish it would have worked a little earlier," he added wryly, referring to the fact that the ugly disclosures that sunk Nixon didn't emerge until after a presidential election in which the South Dakota senator was buried by a landslide.
How did the full extent of Watergate, unveiling a frightening and illegal abuse of presidential power, find its way out into the open? That's a longer story than could possibly be told here. But, briefly, there had to be a judge who could persuade the Watergate burglars to "talk," to divulge that the break-in was authorized by officials in the Republican Party.
Then, of course, there had to be the truly historic digging and reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The turning-point ingredient had to be the Nixon tapes, which, when made public, clearly revealed the "smoking gun" - the evidence that Nixon was involved and calling the shots.
'Mr. Republican' scorns Nixon
For history's sake (trying not to give it too much importance while making sure it's not forgotten), the Monitor played a role in convincing Nixon that he must resign. A Monitor interview with the most powerful Republican at the time, Sen. Barry Goldwater, showed that even the man regarded as "Mr. Republican" had turned against Nixon. Senator Goldwater said Watergate "smelled like Teapot Dome." And he contemptuously described Nixon as "sounding like a second-hand car salesman."
Nixon was soon gone. He gave up the fight to stay in the presidency when he began to see that even the Republican leadership was turning its back on him. Virtually without friends, he waved goodbye.