Music History #9: "Watergate Blues"
Written and performed by Tom T. Hall (1973)
Back in the early days of country music, songs were often like newspaper articles, written and sung to spread the news of some topical event. In 1973, country storyteller-songwriter Tom T. Hall revisited this idea with “Watergate Blues.” In three minutes, Hall sums up the entire 1972 election, and the subsequent break-in and wire-tapping of the Democratic National Committee that exploded into the political scandal of the century. Hall’s song was never a big hit, but it was a concert favorite during the time. (You can hear it here.)
The run-up to the presidential election of 1972 was typically nasty. Democratic candidate George McGovern’s first choice running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was forced off the ticket when it was discovered that he’d had a history of depression. Republicans suggested there had been “shock therapy” involved and that was the end of Eagleton. Conservative pundits also pinned a damaging slogan on McGovern, claiming he was for “amnesty, abortion and acid” (McGovern had suggested that possession of small amounts of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor, and that was twisted into his supposed support for “acid”).
On June 17, 1972, in Washington, D.C., five men were arrested for trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. (Watergate, often remembered as a hotel, actually included an odd variety of businesses, from a museum of paleontology to an armor repair center.) The idea for the break-in came from one of Nixon’s underlings, G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was the type of guy who, at a party, would hold his hand directly into a candle flame for laughs. For him, burglarizing and wire-tapping were a necessary means to an end – namely, driving the Democratic party into shambles.
Though a GOP security aide was among the burglars, the Nixon camp initially denied any link to the Watergate break-in. But after a $25,000 cashier’s check, earmarked for the Nixon campaign, ended up in the account of one of the burglars, the hunt was on.
None of this affected Nixon in the voting booths, and he trounced McGovern in November 1972.
But Watergate didn’t go away. Over the next two years, relentless investigation by the FBI, a grand jury, a senate committee, a special prosecutor and two newspaper reporters revealed an undercover operation that brought down the Nixon administration.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a secret informant on Capitol Hill. Their editor dubbed this source “Deep Throat,” as a nod to a porn movie that was controversial at the time. The reporters met Deep Throat several times in an underground parking garage in Washington, D.C., at 2 am, and got leads for their investigation. What did Deep Throat get in return? The satisfaction of protecting the justice system from presidential abuse, according to Woodward. But thirty years later, when Deep Throat’s identity was revealed as William Mark Felt, a former Deputy Director of the FBI, several books speculated that he was angling for the FBI Director’s job. The leaks did hurt Director L. Patrick Gray, a friend of Nixon’s who’d been chosen over Felt, but Felt never got the coveted position.
Whatever his motivation, Deep Throat’s tips helped Woodward and Bernstein piece together the convoluted puzzle of the Watergate break-in.
By early 1973, heads were rolling. In January, two former Nixon aides, Liddy and James McCord, were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. Two months later, top White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, all resigned.
“I Am Not A Crook”
The summer of 1973 featured the televised Senate Watergate hearings, a political cultural spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in America. The star of the show was folksy Democratic senator Sam Ervin. Grilling all the President’s men, and spouting lines like, “I think this is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered,” Ervin became the mouthpiece for America’s growing disillusionment over a corrupt government.
If Nixon never knew about the initial break-in (in one of his famous televised denials, he said, “I am not a crook”), he was actively involved in both the cover-up and trying to plug the continuous leaks of information coming from his administration. Especially after a damning testimony by White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who revealed that all of Nixon’s conversations with his staff were tape-recorded, and those tapes still existed.
From then on, Nixon’s daily life became, like Tom T. Hall’s song title, a non-stop Watergate Blues.
Suddenly, everyone was after those tapes. Nixon didn’t want to give them up. His solution, which he presented to the American people in a televised news conference, was to release transcripts of the tapes. It was a stall that only worked for a while. In a Supreme Court ruling, Nixon was forced to hand over all the tapes to investigators. The tapes revealed in no uncertain terms the corruption of the administration.
Pressure against Nixon grew. Even staunch supporters abandoned him. The House of Representatives were poised to recommend Impeachment proceedings. Then on August 9th, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency.
Many of his top aides went to prison. Nixon was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.
Forty years later, some believe that Watergate marks a turning point when America lost its innocence and became cynical (though the same was said of JFK’s assassination). It helped usher in the bitter, angry, polarized politics we see now, the cause of all the paralysis in government, along with a new, aggressive attitude of the media.
But there was a positive side to Watergate. It proved that our system can work. As nasty as the whole affair became, the Constitution and the law ultimately prevailed over the excesses of corrupt politicians (despite Nixon’s pardon, 69 government officials were charged, and 48 were found guilty).
To the day he died in 1994, Nixon claimed he was innocent of any wrongdoing in Watergate.