1973; the Watergate Bursts

By Schwarz, Frederic D. | American Heritage, February-March 1998 | Go to article overview

1973; the Watergate Bursts


Schwarz, Frederic D., American Heritage


On March 23 seven men appeared in a Washington, D.C., courtroom to be sentenced for their parts in the Watergate burglary, a break-in by Republican operatives at Democratic-party headquarters the previous June. At 10:00 a.m. Judge John Sirica made his entrance, but before announcing the sentences, he declared that a "preliminary matter" had to be taken care of. He then read a letter he had received from one of the defendants, James W. McCord, Jr. By the time Judge Sirica was finished, a few minutes later, the Watergate affair had exploded from an incident into a scandal.

McCord was a retired CIA employee who had been hired as a "security consultant" by the Republicans. In that role he had planned the bungled Watergate burglary and numerous other spying activities. McCord's letter said that after his arrest administration figures had pressured him to plead guilty. It accused witnesses at the trial of committing perjury and asserted that "others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial." McCord said he felt "whipsawed": He faced a stiff sentence if he did not cooperate with prosecutors, yet he feared for his safety if he told what he knew.

McCord requested a private meeting with judge Sirica to discuss his charges, since he did not trust the justice Department or the FBI. A few hours later, though, McCord made such a meeting superfluous by offering to talk to a Senate committee that had just begun to consider Watergate.

The so-called Ervin Committee (after its chairman, Samuel J. Ervin, Jr., a North Carolina Democrat) had been appointed in early February, with only mild fanfare, to look into a set of questions that seemed small potatoes at the time. For example, the original burglary still looked a bit suspicious after a trial that had uncovered little about who was behind it. Also, a lawyer named Donald Segretti had overseen a series of pranks and "dirty tricks" during the Democratic primaries, and the committee wondered how much the administration knew about them. …

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