June 13, 2012
Aug. 9, 1974, issue of The Washington Post. (Newseum collection)

Aug. 9, 1974, issue of The Washington Post. (Newseum collection)

40 Years Ago in News History: Break-in at the Watergate

On June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C.

That break-in wasn't the first. Three weeks earlier, the men had planted eavesdropping devices in the DNC offices. On their June return, they taped the latch of a stairwell door to keep it from locking. A security guard, Frank Wills, alerted police when he discovered the door re-taped after he had removed the first one.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's dogged reporting — helped by tips from an anonymous source called "Deep Throat" — traced the crime to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a support group for President Richard Nixon. Their investigation led to the highest levels of government and set in motion an epic tale of crime and cover-up that pitted the Post against the White House.

The Post's stories ultimately brought in the rest of the news media. Congress and the courts also investigated. Throughout the ordeal, Nixon repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of the burglary.

"People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook," he said during a 1973 televised question-and-answer session with Associated Press managing editors. "Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."

In May 1974, the House Judiciary Committee began hearings to impeach the 37th president. The "smoking gun" that destroyed Nixon's presidency was a secret tape recording Nixon released to the special prosecutor four days before his resignation. The tape revealed that Nixon not only knew of the cover-up from the beginning but tried to use the FBI to stop the investigation.

On Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon delivered his resignation speech to the nation. The following day at noon, he officially stepped down, becoming the first U.S. president to resign the office.

"Nixon Resigns," screamed the bold headline in the Aug. 9 edition of the Post.

For its coverage of the Watergate scandal, the Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service, journalism's highest honor.

For more than 30 years, the identity of Deep Throat remained one of the nation's biggest secrets. Only Woodward, Bernstein and Post editor Ben Bradlee knew his true identity. In a 2005 profile in Vanity Fair magazine, Mark Felt, a top FBI official during the Watergate break-in who was frustrated by pressure from the White House to downplay the break-in, was finally revealed as Deep Throat. Felt died in 2008 at age 95.

The name Watergate started a worldwide trend of attaching the suffix "gate" to any story that hinted of scandal. The practice remains to this day.

The Watergate door, Woodward's notes from an early-morning parking garage meeting with Felt, and other Watergate artifacts are part of a permanent exhibit on news reporting in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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