Best Watergate Documentary

Maria Johnson
• Monday, 02 November, 2020
• 24 min read

In the course of a mammoth, horribly absorbing four-hour film from Charles Ferguson we are immersed in a world of milky TV news footage, big lapels, bulbous comb overs, dirty tricks, sweat, jowls and guilt. It was a time when the nation learned its president had compiled a deadly serious “enemies list” that included Paul Newman.

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America’s Watergate ordeal lasted from the first break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington DC on 28 May 1972, and lasted until 8August 1974, with Richard Nixon’s blandly impenitent resignation, tendered in return for a promised presidential pardon from his successor Gerald Ford, exempting him from the criminal prosecution that put his co-conspirators behind bars. Nixon barked his boorish insults and grotesque bigotries into secret tapes; Trump megaphones them via Twitter.

Weirdly, though, Ferguson doesn’t spend that long on the central mystery: why on earth did Nixon install the tape recording machines in the first place, making what the formidable congresswoman Elizabeth Boltzmann compares to “mafiosi wiretaps”? But mostly he was just a paranoid control freak, an OCD bully who loved stockpiling material that could be used against his enemies, and did not foresee the blow back.

They include Will Keen (“The Crown”), who plays the president's counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlich man. Tony winner Douglas Hodge (2010's “La Cage Aux Follies”) is Richard Nixon.

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward seems like someone best equipped to answer that tricky question and does here. This sweeping six-part film wages them all over again, in exhaustive, occasionally intricate, detail.

It's a veritable who's who of Watergate figures: burglars, lawyers, legislators, counselors, reporters, editors, investigators, senators, officials, judges and one beset president. Dan Rather is here to relive the defining story of his career, Lesley Stahl, too.

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Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein have told theirs so many times you'd think the varnish would've been stripped off of those memories by now. They were provided, lending Watergate an immersive and occasionally anodyne quality.

Hodge does a brilliant impression of Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco from “Key Largo.” Hodge instead channels a heightened sense of tragic inevitability in his subject.

Ferguson not once gets in the way of the story by suggesting some sort of contemporary parallel with the current president or special counsel. The result was a documentary that explores the American presidential scandal in its full epic span, clocking in at more than four hours.

Ferguson's documentary avoids explicit reference to any possible modern-day parallels, but does go out of its way to explain American law and the mechanics of impeachment. “I felt that it was necessary to show how the American legal and constitutional system worked in this situation so that people would understand what might happen now,” Ferguson said.

“I also felt that it was important not to bias the film in any way as a function of what was going on now, but rather to show what happened during Watergate and let people draw their own conclusions about what was the same and what was different,” he said. The fourth Volume of the Folkways Watergate series is the testimony of former Attorney General, John Mitchell.

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There lacked the almost paranoid sense of protection of the president, so pervasive in today’s world. “Our Nixon” is augmented with clips from oral histories, television interviews, and other public appearances.

For example, Daniel Ells berg is shown discussing his leak of the Pentagon Papers, which publicly sparked the whole Watergate mess and brought the Nixon presidency to its knees. Alderman, Ehrlich man, and Chain contribute their views on the events, views contradicted by major journalists of the period, including Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue, and Daniel Short.

Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Alderman was the closest to Nixon and loyal to his president regardless of events or public outcries. Chief Domestic Adviser John Ehrlich man, the most cynical of the three, was drawn into Nixon’s orbit by his old college pal Alderman.

Only 27 years old on entering the White House, he stood by Nixon during the political ordeals. But arguably overriding it all is the portrait of Richard M. Nixon, a man who had demonstrated remarkable political acumen in the past, who was brought down by his own megalomania.

On the other hand, because he appeared to have the ability to split his psyche into separate compartments, he seemed to have suffered less than any of the other participants in the Watergate affair. It is of note that perhaps the only time Nixon lost control, at least publicly, was in 1993 at the funeral of his beloved wife, Pat, who had stood by her husband through all the painful personal and historical events.

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“Our Nixon” provides a unique insight into an unforgettable period in U.S. history, made up of a collage of often-unrelated film clips. Redford's partner in the venture is Laura Michalchyshyn, a programmer, producer and television executive who has worked for the Sun dance Channel, Discovery Communications and Alliance Atlantis.

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The answer to that question reveals a great deal about why some newspapers succeed and why others fail, why some reporters bring to a story the skills and perseverance that others seem to lack. Readers of The Washington Post awoke on Sunday morning, June 18, 1972, to discover this story by veteran police reporter Alfred E. Lewis on the front page.

The name still reverberates as one of the greatest domestic scandals in American political history, leading to the resignation of the President, Richard Nixon, and the trial and conviction of many of the men closest to him. He remembers that about 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 17, he received a phone call from his boss, Harry M. Rosenfeld, the metropolitan editor.

Rosenfeld said five men had been arrested for a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters and asked him to get into the office on what was normally his day off to supervise the coverage. One was predictable Lewis, the Post's legendary police reporter, a man who had been on the beat so long (36 years) he thought like a cop.

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Lewis arrived at the Watergate complex with the city's acting police chief. They walked through the police lines and into the building, passing dozens of frustrated and curious reporters, and went straight up the elevator to the party headquarters.

Wallace, a presidential candidate, was shot a seriously wounded May 15 at a suburban shopping mall in Laurel, Md. Woodward, interviewed in his beautiful home in Georgetown, the capitals the poshest neighborhood, says that even after all these years he wont say anything more.

He squeezed into a front-row seat and heard James W. McCord, one of the defendants, describe himself as a retired government worker. Wandering around the newsroom that Saturday was the Post's Peck's Bad Boy, the official office hippie, a long-haired reporter who played the guitar and never turned his expense accounts in on time: Carl Bernstein, another young Metro reporter.

In 1972, Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post, wrote in her splendid autobiography, Personal History, that Bernstein had not distinguished himself. He was a good writer, but his poor work habits were well known throughout the city room even then, as was his famous roving eye.

Carl was notorious for an irresponsible expense account and numerous other delinquencies including having rented a car and abandoned it in a parking lot, presenting the company with an enormous bill.” Woodward was a wealthy young man from the Midwest who went to private schools and Yale University.

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Next up the ladder, Suss man, 38, the city editor (responsible for District of Columbia news), an introspective fellow who grew up in Brooklyn and had been something of a vagabond before settling in at the Post. That Saturday, when the story broke, he was at his cabin in West Virginia, where the phone, as usual, want working.

Bernstein wrote a five-page memo expounding his “Coiner Theory,” and sent it to Woodward, Suss man, and Rosenfeld. For many reporters and editors at the Post, and for almost everyone else at other media outlets, the idea that the President could be involved in these insane activities was simply ludicrous.

On Monday, a friendly police officer allowed him to browse through the notebooks and papers confiscated from the five suspects. Babinski arrived at the newsroom shortly before noon on Monday, and told Suss man what he had discovered.

Woodward called the White House switchboard and the telephone operator put him through to an extension, but there was no answer. Hunt wasn't there either, but the secretary answering the phone suggested he might be reached at Robert R. Mullen and Company, a public-relations firm.

He was Charles W. Colson, special counsel to the President of the United States, and he was a major figure in the White House. Woodward called the White House back and confirmed that Hunt was on the payroll as a consultant working for Colson.

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Woodward identified himself and then asked why Hunt's name and phone number were in the address books of two of the burglars arrested at the Watergate. In the book, Woodward said he telephoned his special “friend” who worked for the governmentthe legendary anonymous source dubbed “Deep Throat”and was reassured that the FBI considered Hunt a prime suspect in its Watergate investigation.

Woodward and Bernstein also said in their book that Suss man, invariably referred to as a master of detail, remembered Colson, and pulled out clips about him in the Post library. Clawson had left the paper earlier in 1972 to become the White House deputy director of communications.

He had quoted an anonymous source describing Colson as “one of the original back room boys. Somebody slipped that lovely quote into the story, taking careful note to mention that Clawson was now working at the White House.

Tuesday's story was headlined, “White House Consultant Linked to Bugging Suspects.” The fact that four of the Watergate burglars were anti-Castro partisans from Miami led some reporters and investigators to the conclusion that Cuba had something to do with the break-in.

At the New York Times, reporter Walter Rubber had been sent to Miami and was writing some interesting stories about how the Watergate burglars had been financed. Rubber's contact seemed to be Dade County state's attorney, or prosecutor, Richard Ger stein, who was running for re-election and had opened his own Watergate investigation.

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Things were so slow that Suss man took his wife and two daughters to the beach for a holiday starting the last day in June. He was there on Saturday, July 1, when Mitchell announced he was stepping down as the President's campaign manager to be with his family.

When he returned from vacation, Suss man was called into managing editor Simon office and told the paper had to do more with the Watergate story. On July 22, the Long Island daily Noonday reported that a former White House aide named G. Gordon Lindy had been fired in June for refusing to cooperate with the FBI.

Simon's told Suss man to work full time on the story, along with Woodward and Bernstein. He learned from reading the Times and by making his own phone calls that the Miami investigators had subpoenaed bank records of one of the burglars, Bernard L. Barker, and had begun turning up provocative information.

From reading the Times, Bernstein learned that $89,000 had been deposited in Barker's account and then withdrawn from it in April. He reached the Dade County prosecutor's chief investigator, Martin Paris, and asked him about the $89,000.

“Bernstein directed his ugliest thoughts to Ger stein and Paris,” he and Woodward wrote in their book. Upon arriving in Miami, Bernstein checked in at the Sheraton Four Ambassadors, the city's poshest hotel.

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About 8 p.m. Monday, Bernstein called from Miami to say that after a long game of cat and mouse, Paris unable to shake the persistent reporter -- had finally let him see the actual checks. In their book, the two reporters recount that Bernstein started working the phones furiously, calling police investigators and bank officials in Florida.

Woodward, working on the story in the Post newsroom in Washington, had traced a Kenneth H. Kohlberg to two addresses, one in Boca Raton, in Florida, the other in Minneapolis. He told Woodward he had already talked to the FBI three times and had no idea how the money ended up in Barker's bank account.

Or, he might have added, how fifty-three $100 bills drawn from Barker's account had ended up in the pockets of the Watergate burglars. The story ran in the Post on Tuesday, August 1, on the lower half of the front page.

It would have received more prominence that day if it weren't for the fact that another story led the page with an eight-column banner: “Eagle ton Bows Out of '72 Race; McGovern Weighs Replacement.” Senator from Missouri, had withdrawn as McGovern's vice presidential running mate when it became public knowledge that he had been hospitalized three times with mental problems and had undergone shock therapy on two of those occasions.

A $25,000 cashier's check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon's re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June 17. The check was made out by a Florida bank to Kenneth H. Kohlberg, the Presidents campaign finance chairman for the Midwest.

Kohlberg said last night that in early April he turned the check over to “the treasurer of the Committee (for the Re-election of the President) or to Maurice Stan's himself.” Woodward remembers that when Suss man finished editing the storyright on deadline, as usually put his pencil and his pipe down on his desk and told his ace reporter, “We've never had a story like this.

That night, Woodward says, he had dinner with the man he considers a mentor, the late Jerry Landau er, the Wall Street Journal's legendary investigative reporter (who broke the story that led to the resignation of Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew). It gave the lie to the campaign's contention that the Watergate break-in was carried out by zealots operating independentlyGordon Lindy, chief among themwho were simply out of control.

He didn't give up, he didn't call the office back in Washington and say he was coming home because the authorities weren't cooperating. Suspicions were now growing that prosecutor Earl Gilbert and the Justice Department, heavily influenced by the Nixon White House, hoped to restrict the investigation solely to the burglars.

The most important wheel was a little-known agency in the General Accounting Office called the Federal Elections Division, headed by Philip S. “Sam” Hughes, a veteran bureaucrat who had helped write the GI Bill of Rights following World War II. The agency had set up shop on April 7, charged by a recently enacted campaign-reform act to tighten up the reporting of campaign contributions.

Hughes told Woodward there was no mention of the Kohlberg check in any of the finance filings by the Nixon committee. At the same time, Congressman Wright Batman, the 79-year-old chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, directed his staff to see if there had been any violations of banking law in the way the Kohlberg check and the laundered Mexican cash had been handled.

That investigation never really got off the ground, partly because Batman some days couldn't assemble a quorum of committee members, but it was a start. On the Senate side, Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Administrative Practices and Procedure, began another investigation.

Woodward's editors told him to make absolutely certain that no other paper beat the Post on the agency's findings. On August 22, the second day of the GOP national convention in Miami, Woodward and Bernstein reported that Hughes' election office was preparing to release its report documenting illegal activities by Nixon's re-election committee.

It was at that time, Woodward and Bernstein say, that Sloan revealed to Hughes that the Kohlberg check and the Mexican money were a part of a larger cash fund kept in two safes at CREEP headquartersone in Sloan's old office and one in Stan's's office. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican national chairman and a major White House mouthpiece, said George McGovern's Democratic finance committee had committed a lot more serious violations of campaign-finance laws cited 14 of demand demanded that Hughes investigate the Democrats too.

The Post published this story on September 13, reporting that the “General Accounting Office investigators have found only technical violations of the new campaign finance law ... George McGovern election committee, according to reliable sources.” The findings contrast sharply with those from Hughes inquiry into the Nixon re-election committee, after which the GAO referred its audit to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.

But, of course, the Justice Department was moving at a glacial pace in its Watergate investigation, saying frequently that it would be a disservice to the system and to the defendants to comment on the various allegations. No other paper, he says, took the time to investigate Dole's allegations of impropriety in the financial affairs of the McGovern campaign.

By mid-August, Woodward, Bernstein, Simon's, Suss man and others directly connected to the Watergate story were convinced that senior officials at the White Houseperhaps even the Presidential to be involved, Interviews with the people inside were hard to set up and when a reporter was allowed past the gates he was accompanied by someone to the office of the person he or she had arranged to interview, and then taken in hand and led back to the gate and out the front door when he or she was finished.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote that a Washington Post researcher obtained a list of 100 CREEP employees from a friend. “Studying the roster became a devotional exercise not unlike reading tea leaves,” Bernstein and Woodward wrote in their book.

“Divining names from the list, Bernstein and Woodward, in mid-August, began visiting CRP people at their homes in the evenings,” they wrote, using the third person. They realized the advantages of working together, particularly because their temperaments were so dissimilar.... Each kept a master list of telephone numbers.

Eventually, the combined total of names on their lists swelled to several hundred, yet fewer than 50 were duplicated.... To those who sat nearby in the newsroom, it was obvious that Woodward-Bernstein was not always a smoothly operating piece of journalistic machinery.

The search for the journalistic mean was frequently conducted at full volume, and it was not uncommon to see one stalk away from the other's desk. Each developed his own filing system; oddly, it was Bernstein, far the least organized of the two, who kept records neatly arranged in manila folders labeled with the names of virtually everyone they encountered.

Woodward's record-keeping was more informal, but they both adhered to one inviolate rule: they threw nothing out and kept all their notes, and the early drafts of stories. One CREEP employee told the reporters, in tears, that she was scared of what was happening, and that all kinds of documents were being shredded.

Woodward remembers Earl Gilbert, the chief prosecutor, asking him, “Why are you believing all these women?” Lurking in the background was Woodward's special friend, the man whom managing editor Simon's had christened “Deep Throat (the title of a pornographic movie popular at the time).

In their book, Woodward and Bernstein described Deep Throat as a member of the Executive Branch who had access to information at both CREEP and the White House. If he wanted to see “Deep Throat,” he would move the flowerpot and the stick with the red flag to the rear of the balcony.

If the pot had been moved, Woodward and “Deep Throat” would meet at 2 a.m., when downtown Washington was quiet and a little eerie, in an underground garage. In the lower corner of the page there would be a hand-drawn clock, the hands pointing to the hour when “Deep Throat” wanted to meet Woodward in the garage.

Suss man suggests that “Deep Throat” made for good drama but not really that important as a source. On September 15, the five Watergate burglars, plus Hunt and Lindy, were indicted by a federal grand jury.

Attorney General Richard Plantains said the indictments represented the culmination of “one of the most intensive, objective, and thorough investigations in many years, reaching out to cities all across the United States as well as into foreign countries.” At the Post, Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their book, there was the gnawing suspicion that this was as far as the Federal prosecutors intended to take the case.

The very next day, September 16, they reported that funds used in the Watergate bugging and break-in had been “controlled by several assistants of John N. Mitchell” when he was the campaign boss. John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.

In putting the story together, Bernstein called Mitchell at his apartment in New York City at about 11 p.m. and read him the lead. A dentist in California made a little wringer with a working crank out of gold he normally used for fillings and sent it to Mrs. Graham.

Later, her friend, the humor columnist Art Buchwald, gave her a tiny gold breast to go with it. Other papers did good work on Watergate the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Star-News, the New York Timeout only the Post did the kind of incremental reporting that made people aware that it was the paper with the biggest stake in the story.

Well, the caller said, his friend had been asked to join the Nixon team in the summer of 1971 to work with “a crew of people whose job it would be to disrupt the Democratic campaign during the primaries. Woodward and Bernstein had believed all along that the bugging and break-in at the Watergate hadn't been an isolated event; it must have been, they thought, a part of a larger campaign of sabotage and obstruction.

Bernstein ran down Shirley, a Democrat and an assistant attorney general in Tennessee, who said the man who tried to hire him to do dirty tricks was Donald H. Peretti, a 31-year-old lawyer in Marina del Ray, California. FBI's agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon's re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of Justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic presidential contenders andsince 1971represented a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort. Woodward and Bernstein hadn't actually got anything from Peretti, who refused to talk to them, but from three different people he tried to recruit for his little dirty-tricks operation, they had learned the broad outlines of what he was trying to accomplish.

It involved a letter to the editor published in the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader on February 24 alleging that Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, at that time the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, had condoned the use of the derogatory word, “Canucks,” to describe Americans with French-Canadian roots, who vote in large numbers in New Hampshire elections. The letter, signed by a fictional Paul Morrison of Deerfield Beach, Fla., deeply disturbed the thin-skinned Muskie, and he was said to have ended up in tears talking about his troubles in a campaign speech in Manchester. Muskie's withdrawal was a coup for the Nixon strategists; they had believed from the start he would be their most challenging opponent.

In their October 10 story, Bernstein and Woodward said that Ken Clawson, the White House press officer who had once been a reporter at the Post, had told Post reporter Marilyn Berger that he was the author of the Canuck letter. Two days later, Bernstein wrote a story detailing more dirty tricks played on Muskie and his campaign.

They included stolen documents, faked literature, canceled rallies and mysterious telephone calls. Both the Post and Time magazine, whose Washington bureau had good sources at the Justice Department, reported on Sunday and Monday, October 15 and 16, that Peretti had been hired for the dirty-tricks job by Dwight Chain, Nixon's appointments secretary.

Simon's told them the Post was putting together a Watergate task force, with Suss man still in charge. Suss man arrived for work in the newsroom about 9:30 a.m. on October 24, and found Woodward already talking to a source on his telephone.

“Bob” Alderman and his sidekick, John Ehrlich man, were Nixon's two top aides and advisors. Sources were telling the two reporters that Chain would never have hired or paid Peretti without the approval of his boss, Alderman.

Their most important source was Hugh Sloan, the former CREEP treasurer who had resigned weeks earlier, apparently because he hadn't approved of what was going on at the re-election committee. The story appeared on the Post's front page the morning of October 25 saying that Sloan had testified before the grand jury that Bob Alderman was one of the men who had access to the secret campaign fund.

Throughout Watergate, Nixon Administration officials had become notorious for criticizing stories by attacking them without actually denying them. These official statements sounded like denials, but when they were carefully parsed, they did not actually contradict the allegations in the stories.

When the Hugh Sloan story hit, Woodward, Bernstein and others at the Post knew there were problems because the Administrations denials were the real thing. “I watched the shit hit the fan on the CBS Morning News,” Bradley recalled in his book.

It is a blatant effort at character assassination that I do not think has been witnessed in the political process in come time.” As it turned out, Bernstein and Woodward had the main point rightHaldeman was deeply involved with the slush fund.

They were faced with finding a way to make the story sound authoritative without exposing their reluctant or maybe confused sources. Howard Simon's, the managing editor, was uneasy, and suggested, according to Suss man, that Woodward and Bernstein try to come up with another source.

According to Suss man, Bernstein piped up that he knew a source in the Justice Department who might be willing to confirm such an important story. The source agreed and used the signal that Bernstein understood meant that the story about Alderman's involvement was correct.

But here was Bernstein saying that he was able to confirm a story damaging to the President of the United States and his chief of staff through the silence of a balky source. They did argue that the story was “basically true” because Alderman was really involved, even though Sloan hadn't explicitly said so in his appearance before the grand jury.

Two weeks later, on November 7, Nixon was re-elected president, defeating George McGovern by 18 million votes (60.7% to 37.5%). Even Dorothy McArdle, the nice 68-year-old lady who covered social events at the White House for the Post, was cut off.

The Post thought it was curious, too, that two of its TV stations in Florida suddenly had their licenses challenged. Desperate to make some news, Bernstein and Woodward tried to get in touch with the grand jurors handling the Watergate investigation in late November.

“I am sure we were all influenced by Nixon's overwhelming re-election win, on top of our own inability to break new ground in the Watergate story,” Bradley wrote. Early in December, Post reporter Lawrence Meyer discovered that a White House phone used by Howard Hunt had been installed in a woman's home in Alexandria.

The other was Democratic Senator Sam ErvIn from North Carolina, a very smart country lawyer. The trial of the five Watergate burglars and Lindy and McCord began in Judge Silica's courtroom on Monday, January 8, 1973.

Bradley wrote he was actually pleased to be beaten on an important story by his old friend, Seymour M. “SY” Harsh and the New York Times, “because it meant the Post was no longer alone in alleging obstruction of justice by the administration.” Harsh had reported that the Watergate defendants were being paid hush money with funds that appeared to have been raised for the Nixon re-election campaign.

He had read all those Post stories, and he was convinced there was a lot more at stake than a bugging and burglary at Democratic Party headquarters. He got the break he needed when McCord wrote him a letter saying pressure had been applied to keep the defendants quiet and that perjury had been committed.

More damaging information came from the hearings to confirm L. Patrick Gray's appointment as FBI director. Woodward interpreted that to mean that possibly Nixon's support on Capitol Hill was beginning to erode.

On April 30, Alderman, Ehrlich man, and Attorney General Plantains resigned, and John Dean was fired. James McCartney, the respected national correspondent for Knight Newspapers, was in Bradley's office when the news came in, interviewing the editor for a long freelance piece in the Columbia Journalism Review.

For a split second, Ben Bradley's mouth dropped open with an expression of sheer delight. He strode into the Post's vast fifth-floor newsroom, and shouted across rows of desks to reporter Bob Woodward.

By May 17, when the Watergate committee began its televised hearings, there was only one name left in their files that Bernstein and Woodward had never thoroughly checked outpresidential aide Alexander P. Butterfield. Sam Dash, the committee counsel, set up the interview for Friday, July 13, 1973, surely the unluckiest day of all for Richard Nixon.

On Monday, before a national television audience, Butterfield laid out the whole story about how the President of the United States had recorded all those terribly incriminating conversations in his own office. On October 20, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”, he fired Archibald Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor and abolished his office.

It wasn't until July 24, 1974, that the Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that Nixon had to turn over the tapes, in which investigators finally found the “smoking gun.” Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three impeachment articles, obstruction of justice.

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