Forty Years After Watergate

By Beacon Staff

Last month marked 40 years since the Watergate scandal. The anniversary has me remembering a discussion in 1987 with the Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill who, 15 years earlier, had seen the foreboding shadow of the distant Watergate tsunami a full year before it crashed over the nation’s political shoreline.

No one who lived through and paid attention to the Watergate affair and the political rot surrounding it can ever forget. Forty-three people, eight of them high government appointees and elected officials, were tried, found guilty of perjury, burglary, money laundering and were jailed. Among the punished were Vice President Spiro Agnew and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. The sordid series of events was rife with thugs, misfits, and prominent persons who held no regard for our laws and Constitution. Our consciences were seared by crimes ordered straight out of the White House.

Tip O’Neill and I sat together in his office as he recounted his first whiff of the stench: “I had just been chosen House Majority Leader,” he said. “It was early 1973 and I got a call from George Steinbrenner. ‘George, old pal, how come I don’t hear from you anymore?’”

“Tip,” said Steinbrenner, “I’ve got a problem and I would like to come to D.C. and visit with you.” In O’Neill’s office, Steinbrenner, a successful businessman in Cleveland but not yet owner of the New York Yankees, unloaded, telling O’Neill the White House and IRS were muscling him for huge contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign. They threatened to cut off Steinbrenner’s shipping contracts on the Great Lakes and start an IRS investigation of his tax returns. “Tip,” said Steinbrenner, a Democrat, “they are demanding I chair Democrats for Nixon.” O’Neill continued his story, “It was only the beginning. Other old Democrat friends and contributors began calling to tell me the same terrible story of being held up by Nixon’s henchmen. ”

Tip O’Neill was a good and decent politician, a one-of-a-kind leader. He learned his finely honed instincts the hard-boiled way – on Boston’s streets, union halls, and clubhouses. Always avoiding the corrupt, Tip was honest to the core and that spring of 1973 the old pol smelled political trouble and he knew what it meant. “With the cherry blossoms in bloom,” O’Neill said, he walked into the office of then-Speaker Carl Albert and startled him with simple words loaded with meaning, “Mr. Speaker, all my years tell me what’s happening.

The time is going to come when impeachment of the president will hit this Congress. We better get ready for it.”

That fall the hammer fell. Thugs linked to the White House were caught trying to break into and burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices, a small investigation was begun and the more they looked, the more corruption was uncovered: money laundering, lying, burglary, bribery, illegal fundraising … corruption galore, ordered or condoned by the Oval Office. The Senate formed a special investigations committee – the Watergate Committee. The majority leader, Montana’s Mike Mansfield, handpicked the chairman, Sen. Sam Irvin of North Carolina. Under the astute guidance of Irvin, a self-described “country lawyer,” the committee uncovered the sordid truths piece by stinking piece. Our country changed … and not for the better.

Tip O’Neill went on to become Speaker of the House of Representatives where he served with honor and distinction from 1977 until his retirement in 1987. Mansfield retired from the Congress in 1977 and was appointed ambassador to Japan by President Carter and again by President Reagan. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and avoided prosecution through a pardon from Gerald Ford.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at The University of Montana.

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