On June 18, 1972, an interesting item appeared in the Washington Post; five men had been arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Complex. Over the next two years, the story would balloon from local curiosity to international scandal, eventually bringing about President Nixon’s resignation, which he announced on this day in 1974.
The story begins back in September 1971, three years before Nixon’s resignation, with this battered gray file cabinet on display in “The American Presidency” exhibition at the American History Museum. At first glance, it looks pretty much like any other: you can easily imagine it in an accountant’s office or behind a teacher’s desk. But notice the top, right next to the lock: it’s smashed in, evidence that someone was trying to access the files.
At that time in his presidency, Nixon was incensed about the release of the Pentagon Papers, exposing the country’s wrongdoings in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, had leaked the papers to the New York Times. “Nixon wanted to find some information on Ellsberg that would discredit him and the information he was putting out,” says American History Museum curator Harry Rubentstein. “He learned that he had seen a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, and so he thought ‘Ah-hah, here’s a way of discrediting somebody!’”
A covert group was created to plug the leak: the White House Plumbers. “They break in in a very rough way, to imply that somebody broke in to look for drugs or something, so they use a crowbar on the thing,” says Rubenstein. “They were trying to cover up their tracks by seeming as though someone who didn’t know what they were doing was doing it.”
The formation of the Plumbers in an attempt to get dirt on Ellsberg, Rubenstein says, “is the beginning of the process that undermines Nixon.”
The next summer, however, the Plumbers were caught when a security guard at the Watergate noticed that a door leading to the parking garage had been taped so it would not lock. He fixed it, but ten minutes later found it taped once again. The police were called, and five men were arrested inside the DNC’s offices.
Over the next two years, repeated attempts to cover-up the Watergate robbery and the Nixon administration’s links to it eventually led to investigations, hearings and the president’s resignation. One of the factors responsible for the saga mushrooming from a smear campaign to the toppling of a president was the press. “The Watergate break-in was broken as a story and then just sort of languished for a while,” Rubenstein says. “The press, an active investigative press, was central to the story of examining and challenging presidential authority and power.”
The story is chiefly about the tension between executive privilege and respect for the rules, Rubenstein says. “Nixon didn’t feel that as chief executive, organizing a group of people to take on certain activities was against the law, even though there were all these laws on the books that said you couldn’t do this.” The backlash was a confirmation that the public disagreed. “At its core, Watergate is about the abuse of presidential power, not only for national security, but for political issues as well,” Rubenstein says.
And the Ellsberg cabinet? After the robbery, Dr. Fielding “decided that he should bring the file cabinet home and save it as evidence of the break-in. So there is sat for all those years,” Rubenstein says. “Then one day, I got a call from this woman, Elizabeth Fielding, who told me that in their basement, they have this file cabinet they believed had some historical significance. Would we be interested?”