Have you ever wondered why every political scandal is referred to as "something-gate?" That's because of the Watergate scandal, which began 50 years ago this June, a watershed moment in American history and journalism. A shocking abuse of power followed by journalists' tireless search for truth and accountability, Watergate was the scandal to end all scandals (or so we thought).
On June 17, 1972, a break-in at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. targeted the Democratic National Committee's headquarters during an election year. Five men were arrested. While the White House initially disregarded this as a bizarre incident with no ties to President Richard Nixon, the story quickly unraveled and all investigations led back to the Oval Office. Just two years later, Nixon would be impeached and forced to resign.
Check out the following books and films to understand how it happened and where it got us as a nation.
Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became household names after their reporting for The Washington Post brought more and more of the Nixon re-election campaign's offenses to light. Their investigation is detailed in the now-classic book All the President's Men. The reporters took center stage in 1976 when their book was adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name (All the President's Men) starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
King Richard uses Nixon's own secret recordings to dramatically detail the 100 days after his second inauguration in 1973. Author Michael Dobbs uses these recordings to great effect, creating a work of nonfiction that is part espionage thriller and part Shakespearean tragedy.
Several years after his resignation, attempting to set the record straight, Nixon agreed to a series of interviews with British presenter David Frost. The interviews turned into a battle of wits which were dramatized along with the behind-the-scenes intrigue in the 2008 film Frost/Nixon. These interviews produced Nixon's iconic phrase, "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal," an idea with consequences in our current era.
The Watergate Girl by Chicago native Jill Wine-Banks offers a first-hand account by the only female member of the special prosecution team. Wine-Banks provides insights into the proceedings while also addressing the sexism she faced as a "girl" lawyer who wore miniskirts and how lessons of Watergate apply to today's political climate.
If you want to go back even further to understand Nixon's ascendance to the presidency, challenge yourself to read Nixonland. At over 800 pages, Rick Perlstein dives deep into Nixon's rise from his working-class roots to the Oval Office. But more than that, he looks at the deep fractures in American society that formed in the 1960s and '70s, and how politicians like Nixon helped deepen those divides, creating the conservative and liberal camps we know today.
Do you remember when the Watergate story broke? Perhaps you weren't born yet and are just learning the details. No matter your age, the political consequences and the questions of power and journalistic freedom it raised still face us fifty years later.