The Watergate affair has become synonymous with political corruption and conspiracy. The crisis has, through fact, fiction, and debate, become considerably more than the arrest of five men breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC in the early hours of Saturday, June 17, 1972. Instead, the term “Watergate” has since come to represent the burglary, its failed cover-up, the press investigation, the Senate enquiry, and the eventual resignation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States, Richard Nixon. Arguably, Watergate has come to encompass all the illegalities of the Nixon administration. The crisis broke when the Vietnam War had already sunk public confidence in the executive to a low ebb, and in the context of a society already fractured by the turbulence of the 1960s. As such, Watergate is seen as the nadir of American democracy in the 20th century.
Perversely, despite contemporaries’ genuine fears for the future of the US democratic system, the scandal highlighted the efficiency of the US governmental machine. The investigations that constituted the Watergate enquiry, which were conducted by the legislative and judicial branches and the fourth estate, exposed corruption in the executive of the United States that stretched to the holder of the highest office. The post-war decades had allowed an imperial presidency to develop, which had threatened the country’s political equilibrium. Watergate disclosed that the presidency had overreached its constitutional powers and responsibilities and had conspired to keep those moves hidden from the electorate. More significantly, however, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon revealed that the checks-and-balances system of government, which was conceived almost 200 years before the Watergate affair, worked as those who devised it had planned. Watergate should illustrate to Americans not just the dangers of consolidating great power in the office of the president, but also the means to counteract such growth.
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