One of the two critical events that resulted in Richard Nixon becoming the first U.S. president to resign the presidency in disgrace occurred this week (June 25) in 1973 when former White House Counsel John Dean testified before the Senate’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. In his testimony, Dean claimed that Nixon had lied in continuing to profess ignorance of any attempts to cover-up the Watergate break-in, in which, in June of 1972, seven men, including two members of Nixon’s reelection campaign, broke into and attempted to wiretap the Democratic National Convention headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Dean claimed that Nixon had known about, and participated in, the Watergate cover-up beginning in September of 1972, three months after the break-in occurred.
Dean’s motive for turning against Nixon was essentially self-preservation. First, he had been a party to the planning of the Watergate break-in; he had been present when G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and member of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, as critics aptly named it), presented a plan to break into the Democratic Party’s headquarters and wiretap the phones. Second, once the seven burglars were arrested and tied to the White House, Dean participated in the cover-up, destroying evidence and stonewalling investigators.
Third, by March of 1973 Dean suspected that he was being set up as the scapegoat for the entire Watergate scandal. Nixon’s two chief advisors, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, began distancing themselves from Dean, and he was increasingly shut out of meetings in which Watergate was discussed. At that point Dean hired his own attorney and began cooperating with Watergate investigators, and when, the following month, Nixon fired Dean as White House counsel, Dean realized his only option was fully cooperating with the Senate investigating committee. He had hoped his cooperation would earn him immunity from prosecution.
It didn’t, but it did earn him everlasting fame and a central role in the Watergate drama because he was the first highly placed official in the Nixon administration — the first who had daily contact with Nixon — to publicly testify that Nixon knew of, and participated in, the cover-up.
The press had a field day with Dean’s testimony, and the Watergate scandal became a national obsession, but from a legal standpoint nothing had changed. It was still Nixon’s word against Dean’s.
Which leads to the second of the two critical events that brought Nixon down. In July of 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a former aide to Haldeman, testified that Nixon had taped all of his White House conversations, meaning that if Nixon had participated in the cover-up, it would probably be on tape.
He did and it was, so on August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.