<i>"Well ... they have to be paid. That's all there is to that. They have to be paid."
— President Richard Nixon speaking to H.R. Haldeman on Aug. 1, 1972, as recorded on tape</i>
Forty years ago this week, a small news story appeared in the Washington Post that would change the face of politics and journalism in America. The headline read "Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds." The story carried a shared byline, that of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
"A $25,000 cashier's check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon's re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June 17."
The story was significant because, up to then, the break-in at the Watergate had been covered pretty much, as White House spokesman Ron Ziegler later called it, as a "third-rate burglary attempt." This story, for the first time, established a money trail connecting the Watergate burglars, the president's re-election campaign and the White House itself.
Also significant was the timing of it all. Because. while the investigations by the FBI and "Woodstein," as Post Editor Ben Bradlee would call his Watergate reporters, were just getting under way, the cover-up was in full operation.
The very day the story came out about the donation ending up in a burglar's bank account, Nixon's own tapes would later reveal that the president was meeting with his top advisers developing strategies to stifle the FBI investigation, discredit reporters and pay the burglars to hush up (note quote above).
Later that month, the president told the nation at a news conference, that White House Counsel John Dean had conducted a complete investigation. "I can say categorically," Nixon said. "That ... no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident."
But it turned out to be a bald-faced lie. No investigation had been done. In fact, the White House was trying to squelch the investigations, something Dean himself would essentially confirm during testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee the following summer.
Forty years later, I'm still fascinated by the mendacity of it all: the lying, the wire-tapping, the absurd risks well-educated professionals were willing to take to glorify and protect a president consumed with vindictiveness. Like reading about the Titanic, I can't seem to get enough of this, America's greatest political disaster.
But I'll admit I wasn't so consumed with it at the time. I was 12 when the Watergate break-in occurred and just 14 when my father, on Aug. 8, 1974, turned on the television in the middle of the day in Hawaii of all places — during a rare family vacation — and said simply, "This is a historic moment. You will remember this the rest of your life." And he and I sat in silence as we watched the president of the United States resign.
It was a heartrending moment for my father, a longtime Republican and Nixon supporter who had gone to law school with John Ehrlichman and still had personal letters from him in his records somewhere. Although he didn't talk about it much — we tended to clash over politics in those days — it was clear he could not stomach what was happening.