Cypress College President Richard Nixon History Questions

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  1. What were the three reasons that Nixon gave for refusing to turn over the White House tapes?
  2. What do these reasons illustrate about Nixon’s understanding of the division of power within the federal government?
  3. How did Nixon’s argument illustrate his ideas about the power of the presidency? (Links to an external site.)
  4. What
    did Chief Justice Burger say about the origins of executive privilege?
    How does this origin justify his decision about Nixon releasing the
    tapes? (Links to an external site.)
  5. Did United States v. Nixon expand the power of the presidency? (Links to an external site.)
  6. Why did Nixon resign?


Watergate Beyond Nixon (Links to an external site.)

What was Watergate? (Links to an external site.)

Watergate and the Constitution (Links to an external site.)

NYT Opinion by Burger


Stage 1: The Watergate Break-In

In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 17, 1972, Frank Wills
discovered a piece of tape over a basement-door lock in the Watergate
apartment and office complex in Washington, D.C. Wills, a night watchman
at the complex, removed the tape and left to get a cup of coffee. When
he returned less than an hour later, he found the same lock had been
re-taped, so he called police.

Plainclothes officers responded to the call, and they soon confronted
five burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee on
the sixth floor of the building. The burglars wore business suits and
thin rubber gloves, and they carried cameras, film, a walkie-talkie,
lock, picks, electronic surveillance equipment, and stacks of
hundred-dollar bills. Although they offered false identifications at
first, it was soon discovered that the worked for the Committee to
Re-Elect the President, popularly known as CREEP. They were in the
Watergate complex to install electronic bugging equipment in telephones
that would have transmitted Democratic campaign strategy back to CREEP.

Most newspapers downplayed or ignored the initial story of the
break-in, but the Washington Post ran a story on the front page of its
Sunday edition. The Post’s story was written by
Bob Woodward, who with his colleague Carl Bernstein, soon began in-depth
investigations of the curious circumstances surrounding the Watergate

In response to the story, John Mitchell, President Nixon’s campaign
manager, denied that the burglary was part of a spying operation by the
president’s men. Ronald Ziegler, the president’s press secretary, said,
“I am not going to comment on a third-rate alleged burglary attempt.”
And, within days of the break-in, President Nixon himself denied the
White House had been involved.

Stage 2: Investigations Begin

In the early days following the Watergate break-in, hardly anyone in
the country suspected that there was a direct link between the burglary
and the White House. But details of the brewing scandal began to emerge
in the pages of the Washington Post, shortly before and for a long time
after, the 1972 election. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were two young
reporters at the Post who pursued the story. In the process, they
logged thousands of investigative hours and followed hundreds of leads,
including anonymous sources. The two reporters began to slowly link
Nixon’s advisers, and eventually Nixon himself, to a cover-up of the
White House’s involvement in the burglary.

Soon, other groups also began to pursue more information about
Watergate. A number of newspapers and magazines aggressively covered the
story, and a grand jury convened to investigate the ramifications of
the break-in. After the initial grand jury investigations in September
1972, only two White House aides, Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and the
five burglars – James McCord, CREEP’s director of security; and four
Cubans who had been recruited for the job – were indicted (charged with a
crime). Both Liddy and Hunt had initially avoided arrest, but later
pleaded guilty to involvement in the burglary.

The many investigations into the Watergate scandal ultimately
revealed that it was about more than just a burglary. Woodward and
Bernstein and others obtained evidence that White House officials were
responsible for a series of efforts to ensure Nixon was reelected. They
planned to discredit and sabotage several Democratic presidential
contenders, and pledged to do “whatever was necessary” to stop
government leaks to the press. They also extorted (illegally used their
official position to obtain) millions of dollars in campaign
contributions from corporations seeking government favors, and even
tried to get the Internal Revenue Service to, in Nixon’s words,
“pressure our enemies.” As news stories increasingly connected top
presidential officials with such sordid activities, the White House
issued stronger denials and put pressure on the Washington Post and
others to back off.

Stage 3: Congressional Hearings

In March 1973, the grand jury investigating the burglary convicted
Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars and sentenced them to 20, 35, and 40
years in prison, respectively. Soon thereafter, L. Patrick Gray, the
acting director of the FBI, resigned after admitting he had destroyed
Watergate evidence. In May 1973, North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, chair
of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities, convened
hearings on Watergate. The hearings were televised across the nation and
were watched with great fascination by large numbers of Americans.
Former White House counsel John Dean, fired in April by Nixon, testified
before the committee in June. He revealed that former Attorney General
John Mitchell – who became Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign manager –
had ordered the Watergate break-in and that the White House was covering
up its involvement. Dean also testified that the president had
authorized payments of hush money to the burglars to keep them quiet, a
charge vehemently denied by Nixon’s aides. On July 16, 1973, the
startling testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield testified
that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House to
automatically record all conversations – something only a handful of
people had known about. Now, the hearing’s key questions – what did the
president know, and when did he know it – could be answered by listening
to the tapes.

Special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been appointed to
investigate the Watergate break-in, immediately subpoenaed (summoned to
court) eight tapes from the White House to confirm Dean’s testimony.
Nixon refused to give them up, claiming they were vital to national
security. Nixon then offered to provide a summary of the tapes to Cox.
Cox said that wasn’t good enough, and so Nixon had him fired in October
1973. Cox’s dismissal prompted an outpouring of protest, which included
350,000 angry telegrams sent to Congress and the White House. Nixon
responded to the unexpected protests by appointing another special
prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and then turning over the subpoenaed tapes.
By this time, many of Nixon’s top aides had been indicted for crimes
related to Watergate.

Stage 4: The Secret Tapes

When President Nixon finally turned over the secret tapes to Judge
Sirica, some of the conversations requested by the special prosecutor
were missing. One tape had a mysterious gap of 18 ó minutes, which
experts said resulted from five separate erasures. Nixon’s aides denied
that any intentional erasures had occurred and blamed the 18 ó – minute
gap on an accidental erasure by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods.
Woods told Judge Sirica she had accidently erased the tape while she was
transcribing it, but her description was rather implausible and
accounted for only 5 minutes of erasure, leaving 13 ó minutes of missing
tape unaccounted for. Americans increasingly believed the missing
conversations were part of a larger White House effort to hide damning

Seven top White House officials – including Mitchell and Colson –
were indicted in March 1974 by a grand jury for their role in the
Watergate cover-up. Though Nixon was not indicted with his top aides,
special prosecutor Leon Jaworski gave Sirica a secret report and bulging
briefcase of evidence against the president and asked him to send it to
the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeachment
charges against the president.

Then, Jaworksi requested 42 more tapes from Nixon. Instead of
releasing the tapes themselves, at the end of April Nixon released
transcripts of the tapes prepared by White House aides, who had edited
out all irrelevant material. Their release caused a sensation: the
Government Printing Office sold 800 copies in three hours on May 1,
1974, and paperback books rushed into print sold millions of copies. The
transcripts were somewhat sanitized for public consumption; wherever
vulgarities existed on the tape, the aides wrote, “expletive deleted” on
the transcripts. The transcripts revealed an overwhelming desire among
Nixon and his aides to punish political opponents, and to thwart the
Watergate investigation. Now, even Nixon’s most steadfast supporters
began to suggest that he needed to step down. Two months later, Jaworski
requested 64 more tapes as evidence in the cases against the indicted
White House officials. Nixon refused to comply, but the Supreme Court
voted 8-0 in July 1974 that he had to turn over the tapes.

Stage 5: Nixon Resigns

After the Supreme Court ruled in late July 1974 that Nixon must turn
over the remaining tapes, the House Judiciary Committee adopted three
articles of impeachment against the president. The charged him with
misusing presidential power to violate the constitutional rights of U.S.
citizens, obstruction of justice, and defying Judiciary Committee

In early August 1974, Nixon provided transcripts of the eight
subpoenaed tapes. The tapes contained the “smoking gun” – the
irrefutable evidence that Nixon had knowingly violated the law and that
he had known about and had participated in the cover-up of the Watergate
break-in from almost the very beginning – something he had steadfastly

Until the tapes were forced out, the idea of such dealings and
conversations in the White House seemed beyond belief. The tapes also
revealed that the president and his advisors were petty and mean,
constantly using vulgar and offensive expletives in their conversations.
Republican Senate leaders called the tapes, “a shabby, disgusting,
immoral performance.”

The backlash to the last set of tapes was overwhelming. Congressional
Republicans – members of Nixon’s own party- concluded that Nixon was
guilty and was a liability they could no longer afford. They told the
president that his impeachment by the House of Representatives and his
removal from office by the Senate were both foregone conclusions, and
that he should resign. Rather than face the near certainty of being
forced from office, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. In his farewell
address, he admitted making some “judgments” that “were wrong,” but he
insisted that he had always acted “in what I believed at the time to be
the best interests of the nation.” Then he climbed the stairs of the
presidential helicopter, turned and gave one last victory salute to his
staff, and flew off to political exile in California.

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