By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
In the early morning of June 17, 1972 — 50 years ago Friday — five men broke into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex and were arrested.
The burglary did not provoke much attention in the days after the arrests, but soon began to unravel into a mosaic of one of the greatest political scandals in the nation’s history.
What became known as the plumber’s unit, was one small slice of a much larger cake cooked by then president Richard Nixon, his aides and campaign officials with the goal of stealing an election.
Nixon, who had more political lives than Charles de Gaulle, had finally achieved his long-held desire to become President of the United States in 1968, something he failed to do eight years earlier when he lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy.
After his 1960 defeat it did not take Nixon long to seek another office unsuccessfully.
After he lost California’s governor’s race in 1962, he told a television audience they were not going to have him to kick around anymore.
The former vice president bided his time and his “retirement” was short lived as he defeated governors Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and old standby Harold Stassen to become the Republican 1968 presidential nominee as the war in Vietnam exploded under former President Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson decided not to run for re-election after Democrat Eugene McCarthy did well enough in the New Hampshire primary to be a foreseeable challenger as many Americans began to turn against the war that divided the country.
Massive demonstrations against the war grabbed media headlines as the war escalated and more and more young men returned home to be buried in the family plot.
It was becoming more difficult to justify a war against the spread of communism in a small Asian country far from the United States and after European powers had already left determined the conflict was more misery than rewards.
The Democrats did not have a clear choice for president: Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, McCarthy failed to maintain any momentum, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was thought to be a continuation of Johnson and his war policies.
Humphrey eventually won the nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago as demonstrations engulfed the city and the Chicago police used excessive force to try to quell the anti-war activities and soon the Windy City’s streets were filled with rioters.
In a highly charged political and social atmosphere, Nixon won by less than 1 million votes, but easily won the electoral college by more than 100 electors with the help of third-party candidate George Wallace.
Four years later the war had not ended but had expanded into Cambodia drawing larger and larger demonstrations, particularly by the young people who bore the war’s burden.
Nixon was determined to retain his presidency and he and his co-conspirators had a plan to pick who would be his Democratic challengers in the general election.
The plan included “dirty tricks,” misinformation, enemy lists and a plan to turn the “silent majority” against the engaged young people and others trying to end the war.
In New Hampshire we are well aware of the “Canuck letter” attributed to Maine US Sen. Edmund Muskie and his reaction in front of the old Union Leader building on Amherst Street.
At the time Muskie was the front runner and believed to have a good shot at defeating the sitting president.
But instead, the Nixon plan worked to perfection. He had the candidate he wanted on the Democratic side, South Dakota US Sen. George McGovern.
McGovern won only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. in a landslide for Nixon in one of the lowest presidential turnouts in United States history.
But two years later, Nixon resigned before his certain conviction in the US Senate after a bipartisan House approved three articles of impeachment.
The disgraced politician left the White House for California but never did apologize to the American people for what he had done to undermine democracy.
His story led to the often heard phrase, even today, “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”
The Nixon saga had secret tape recordings with 18-minute gaps, hush money, political intrigue, clandestine meetings in parking garages with “Deep Throat” and millions of dollars of “dark money” to fuel the diabolical plan.
But it also had people believing they were obligated to tell the truth so the American people did know their president was indeed a crook even though he said he was not.
The Watergate scandal created exciting drama both in the political arena and for Hollywood, so much so it is easy to lose sight of what it really is, political corruption that demeans the sacred trust of the American people.
Many politicians would like to decide who their opponent would be in the general election, but few are as successful as Nixon.
At its core, what Nixon and his cronies did amounts to stealing an election.
And there is nothing more sacred to democracy than citizens choosing who will lead them and through that the direction of the country.
Despite what Nixon did, there were ethical and procedural changes but nothing that changed voter requirements or qualifications. If anything the right to vote was expanded in the years following Nixon’s resignation.
The other issue that Watergate raised that remains today is power. Power and governing are two different things.
Governing is a great deal harder to achieve than raw power, and Nixon showed no aptitude for governing.
When power becomes the goal, and maintaining that power the obsession, democracy sits on a knife’s edge.
As Reagan once said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Reagan was not talking about freedom for a chosen few, but freedom for everyone which comes about from a strong democracy, not from stealing elections and leaders lusting for power.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.