Recalling the Watergate break-in

By ELIZABETH WHARTON   |   Aug. 8, 1984
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WASHINGTON -- When reporters in June 1972 asked White House spokesman Ronald Zeigler about the arrests of five men for breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, he called the incident a 'two-bit burglary.'

He was right. It was a small-time, bungled effort to put wiretaps on campaign officials' telephones and to dig up possible dirt on the potential Democratic candidate, George McGovern.

But it -- and the cover-up that followed -- led to the imprisonment of some of the highest officials in government, including the attorney general and the White House chief of staff.

And in the end it brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon 10 years ago on Aug. 9, 1984, under threat of impeachment.

The break-in of the Democratic complex at the posh apartment-office-hotel complex a mile or so from the White House grew out of an elaborate pre-convention dirty tricks plan for which G. Gordon Liddy had received at least tacit approval from Attorney General John Mitchell.

Mitchell later was convicted on several counts of perjury and served 19 months of a 1-to-4-year prison sentence to become the first former U.S. attorney general to serve time.

When the routine investigation of the burglars turned up the fact that at least one or two of them had White House or former CIA connections, the inquiry spread from the burglary itself to such related issues as:

-Huge and illegal campaign contributions to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

-Campaign 'dirty tricks.'

-A full-scale political spying operation the White House called 'Operation Gemstone.'

-A secret $100,000 fund in the office safe of White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that ultimately was used to buy silence from the Watergate burglars.

-Destruction of evidence by former FBI chief L. Patrick Gray.

-A burglary by White House 'plumbers' into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.

-Nixon's use of government funds to make personal improvements on his San Clemente, Calif., house and property.

-Nixon's income tax returns.

And others. Public opinion was aroused by weeks of fully televised and broadcast hearings by an especially created Senate Watergate Committee, headed by veteran Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina. It was in those hearings that existence of the White House tapes was revealed.

The investigations led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and, ultimately, to the arrests of 63 people, convictions of 54 of them including most of Nixon's top aides, a grand jury finding that named the president an 'unindicted co-conspirator,' and five articles of presidential impeachment drawn up and debated by the House Judiciary Committee.

Three of the articles -- on obstruction of justice, abuse of power and defiance of subpoenas were adopted on votes of 27-11, 28-10 and 21-17, respectively.

The remaining articles, on the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia and on Nixon's personal finances and evasion of taxes both were rejected on votes of 12-26.

Nixon resigned before the House could consider the impeachment recommendations.

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