Constitution Daily

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The legacy of Watergate: Five ways life changed after the scandal

August 8, 2017 by NCC Staff


On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon announced he would resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal. But the effects of Watergate lingered on for years after the scandal.

nixonresignspeechThe investigation into the break-in by Nixon campaign workers in June 1972 at the Democratic campaign headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex led directly to the White House, and by early August 1974, President Nixon faced near-certain impeachment, and a Senate trial, as the allegation unfolded.

Nixon resigned in a nationally televised speech and left Washington on August 9, 1974, as Gerald Ford became president. Over the years, the scandal has been replayed in various forms. But here are five significant trends that came out of a story that developed over two years and captivated the nation.

1. The Supreme Court remained supreme. It was a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court on July 24, 1974 that effectively ended the Nixon presidency by ordering the release of the Watergate “smoking gun” tape and other recordings. The Justices held that not even the president was above the law, and it didn’t agree with Nixon’s claim of executive privilege. More importantly, the Court said, were “the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of justice.”  The Court's curb on executive power remains crucial today.

2. The Church Committee. Concerns surfaced during the Watergate hearings about the FBI investigating American citizens and others for political purposes. The claims were accelerated by a post-Watergate story from the New York Times about CIA allegations about domestic spying. The Church Committee held hearings during the post-Watergate years about these and other secret activities. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was an outgrowth of the committee’s investigations, and it created the special FISA court to authorize surveillance operations when driven by national security concerns.

3. An era of legal reform. The Watergate scandal shined a negative light on the legal profession. Many of the participants in the scandal were attorneys and almost 30 of them faced some type of legal proceeding. After Watergate, most law schools in the United States required courses about professional responsibility, and the American Bar Association rewrote its responsibility code.

4. The era of celebrity journalists. The sudden fame of two little-known reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, created what became known as the culture of celebrity journalists. James Fallows allegedly came up with the term in the 1980s about the growing pop-culture phenomenon of celebrity journalists who were bigger than the stories they covered. They are commonplace today in all forms of media.

5. A legacy of language. Words and sayings from Watergate are part of the common language of America, from President Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” statement to President Ford’s declaration that “our national nightmare is over.” But nothing has been more prevalent that the use of suffix “gate” to indicate a scandal. The late William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, took to using “gate” to describe scandals. By one count, more than 200 scandals have had “gate” attached to them!


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