Watergate at 50: The Burglary That Changed the Nation

Brandeis University

Daniel Breen is Senior Lecturer in Legal Studies at Brandeis University, and a recipient of the Louis Brandeis Award for Excellence in Teaching. While his primary academic interests lay in the law and politics of the Early Republic, he also holds a Ph.D. in American History and enjoys lecturing on a wide variety of subjects. Professor Breen is currently working on an article about the secession movement in New England during the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

Overview

It has been called “The Scandal that Never Goes Away” — and with good reason.  Fifty years after the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, we still do not know the full story of how the burglary came to happen.  What we DO know is that the events that followed, culminating in President Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974, continue to hold lessons about the nature of power that seem to resonate ever more strongly as the years go by.  In this presentation, Professor Dan Breen will tell the story of how a local break-in became a national scandal, and how it profoundly changed the way Americans think about their political institutions.

 

Recommended Reading:

All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein

Watergate: A New History, by Garrett Graff

 

Discussion Questions:

1) What are the lessons we should draw from Watergate?  Should we rest assured that “the system worked” to expose the wrongdoing of President Nixon and those around him, or should the whole experience make us feel less confident about our political and legal institutions?

2) Compare Watergate to other prominent presidential scandals, such as the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987, the Lewinsky Affair of 1999, and the two events that triggered impeachment proceedings against President Trump.  Were the wrongdoings in Watergate worse somehow than these events, or not as troubling?

3) Who do you think comes off best in the story of Watergate?  Was it eventual whistleblowers like John Dean?  The Special Prosecutors (Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski) who fought to have access to the White House tapes?  The Democrats who pursued Watergate investigations in Congress?  Or was it judicial figures, like Washington’s Judge Sirica, or the Supreme Court?

4) Consider President Nixon, whose personality was at the very heart of the events that led to the formation of the Plumbers Unit, and then to the cover-up once the break-in occurred.   Should Watergate be a lasting blot on his reputation?  Or in retrospect, as a matter of history, do you think his other achievements as president outweigh the legacy of Watergate?

 

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Joy Morros

Very informative.

3 months ago
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