50 Years of Watergate: A New Exhibit Commemorates One of the 20th Century’s Most Famous Political Scandals

Gene Valdez aka Eugenio Martinez, arrest report, June 17, 1972

[G]ene Valdez [aka Eugenio Martinez], arrest report, June 17, 1972. Box 8, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“I wanted to topple Castro, and unfortunately I toppled the president who was helping us, Richard Nixon,” lamented Eugenio Martinez, one of the five burglars apprehended on June 17, 1972, for breaking into and wiretapping the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.[1] For Martinez and his largely Cuban exile contingent of intruders, the sitting president, who ultimately resigned amid charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, was their only hope for a Cuba free of communism. For conservative Latino Nixon supporters, notes historian Geraldo Cadava, “Defeating Nixon’s opponents was tantamount to waging war on Castro himself.”[2]

Visitors can find a carbon copy of Martinez’s arrest record, handwritten notes documenting the break-in from acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray III, and much more in a new exhibit commemorating Watergate’s 50th anniversary, located in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.

These two examples, drawn from newly acquired or recently opened collections, are part of the six-case display utilizing two dozen collections from the Manuscript Division’s holdings pertaining to Watergate. The exhibit tracks the scandal from its beginnings on June 17, 1972, to its ongoing ramifications into the 1990s. Drawing on twenty-four Manuscript Division collections in law, journalism, and government, the exhibit explores the role of the press, Congress, the courts, and the Nixon administration as Watergate unfolded and later reverberated through American life.

L. Patrick Gray notes on June 17th Watergate Break In

L. Patrick Gray III, notes on the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in, Box 39, L. Patrick Gray III Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The display also highlights key participants such as the outspoken Martha Mitchell, whose first harried telephone calls to journalist Helen Thomas served as the canary in the coal mine for the criminality afflicting the Nixon administration. “You have to hang on to someone when you’re at the edge of despair, and when my husband [former attorney general John Mitchell] left me with my guards to go back to Washington, I hung on to Helen because I trusted her,” Mitchell recalls in the draft outline of her unpublished memoir, now on display. “My life to date has been sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but it has never been dull.”[3]

Though the print media was slower to acknowledge Watergate, behind initial forays by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the press eventually turned its attention to the scandal. Moreover, though Woodward and Bernstein remain iconic in this regard, numerous other reporters contributed in important ways. David Broder and Mary McGrory, both of whom appear in the exhibit, were awarded Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage.

A conspiracy-tinged letter from noir writer James L. Cain to Broder demonstrates Watergate’s complexity, so intricate that it even confused Cain, a writer very familiar with intrigue. He laments Nixon’s corruption while extolling the virtues of vice president Spiro Agnew, “tactless and rough though he be, has one great attribute in his favor: he’s honest, so far as the record shows.”[4] The vice president later resigned under charges of corruption for taking bribes in the White House.

Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke waves to the crowd at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Miami, Florida

Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke waves to the crowd at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Miami, Florida. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, August 5, 1968. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In one of the scandal’s more “meta” moments, Mary McGrory is congratulated by Robert Redford, the actor who played Woodward in the film adaptation of All the President’s Men. “Mary, Mary always contrary,” Redford writes, “There are several distinctions to your prize – none the least of which is that you are probably the only Pulitzer winner who can’t drive a car – this is all the more impressive, but no less moving.”[5]

Congress is also represented through the Senate Select Committee and burgeoning impeachment efforts in the House of Representatives. Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the Senate after Reconstruction, serves as another notable example. A vital surrogate for Nixon in the 1968 campaign, Brooke emerged as the first Senate Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation in November 1973. “[T]here is no question that President Nixon has lost his effectiveness as the leader of this country, primarily because he has lost confidence of the people of the country, and I think, therefore, that in the interests of this nation that he loves, he should step down, should tender his resignation,” he told the news program Issues and Answers.[6]

While the Supreme Court usually dominates discussions of the nation’s jurisprudence, during Watergate the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit led by Chief Judge John J. Sirica blazed its own judicial path. Sirica’s newly acquired diary from the period appears in the exhibit as does his bench book containing his notes regarding the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean in the trial Mitchell v. United States. “[Dean] talked to Liddy 1/19/74 personally they walked down 17th Street – very worried about men in jail,” writes Sirica.[7] In a diary entry from October 1973 featured in the display, Sirica meets with a disillusioned young man who asks, “Judge, are all politicians crooked?” “[A]ll politicians are not crooked … There is a great opportunity in this country to get things done for politicians who are honest, hard-working and who have good judgement,” Sirica responds.[8]

Richard Nixon to Elliott Richardson, October 19, 1973

Richard Nixon to Elliott Richardson, October 19, 1973, Box 222, Elliott L. Richardson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Additional highlights found in the exhibit: President Nixon’s letter to Elliot Richardson demanding the dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, correspondence by Mark Felt aka “Deep Throat” denying his identity to L. Patrick Gray, internal debate by White House counsel Leonard Garment regarding the dismissal of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, a Supreme Court docket tallying the Court’s vote on the various charges in the constitutionally important case, U.S. v. Nixon, as well as ephemera from the era underscoring the odd mélange of malice and absurdity that defined Watergate.

The exhibit, on display at the Library of Congress until September, reveals the scandal’s cultural impact as well as its importance to American law, politics, and journalism.

Persons interested in delving further into Watergate and manuscript collections pertaining to the scandal can consult the library guide published on the subject in June 2021, as a lead-up to the 50th anniversary: Richard Nixon’s Political Scandal: Researching Watergate in the Manuscript Collections at the Library of Congress.

Join us remotely to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Watergate this June 17, at 5 pm by watching the panel, Fifty Years of Watergate, featuring moderator Margaret Sullivan in discussion with Leonard Downie, Jr., Rick Perlstein, Leah Wright Rigueur, and Dwight Chapin as they consider the scandal’s impact over the past five decades. Click here.

 

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[1] Sam Roberts, “Eugenio Martínez, Last of the Watergate Burglars, Dies at 98,” New York Times, February 2, 2021.

[2] Geraldo Cadava, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity from Nixon to Trump (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), 116.

[3] Martha Mitchell and Helen Thomas, draft unpublished outline of memoir, circa 1974-1976, 16, Box 4, Helen Thomas Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] James L. Cain to David Broder, letter, April 22, 1973, Box 1, David S. Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Robert Redford to Mary McGrory, letter, May 8, 1975, Box 162, Mary McGrory Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Edward Brooke, interview transcript from Issues and Answers, November 4, 1973, Box 563, Edward William Brooke Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] John J. Sirica, Bench Book, for Mitchell v. U.S., 14-5, Box 26, John J. Sirica Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] John J. Sirica, diary entry, October 1973, Box 124, John J. Sirica Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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