A “Third-Rate Burglary Attempt” (Watergate, #1)

Watergate. The most famous of all political scandals. A salacious mix of illicit surveillance, dubious finance, and open felonies. And the president of the United States embroiled in it. Of course, the topic is not only fascinating to politicos, journalists, gossips, and everyone out for a quick buck – but also to the designers and players of board games. Thus, here’s the first half of a two-part piece on Watergate in history and board games – from the mood at the Nixon White House in the early 1970s over the break-in at the Watergate complex itself to Nixon’s irregular campaign finance.

Paranoia and Plumbing: The Nixon White House

Richard Nixon was not a trusting man. All his life, he felt surrounded by hostile forces – the elites, the Democratic Party, the media. This suspicious outlook on life only was reinforced by taking on the office of president of the United States. Information leaking out of the administration – most famously the “Pentagon Papers” on the American involvement in Vietnam – led to a siege mentality at the White House which went far beyond Nixon. The president instituted a group to stop the leaks (half-ironically called the “Plumbers”). At the same time, Nixon founded the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) to run his 1972 campaign. As many of the CRP officials had worked for the administration before – John Mitchell even resigned as Attorney General to head the CRP – or were in frequent contact with White House officials (who often seemed to call the shots at the CRP), the White House’s paranoia soon spread to the CRP.

The CRP was willing to use all means to win re-election for Nixon. Its officials grew convinced that their political opponents were up to some “dirty tricks” (a textbook case of projection) which they wanted to uncover. Thus, the CRP (in the person of John Mitchell) approved the plan of CRP official G. Gordon Liddy to use intelligence operations in order to gather information about their political opponents. In practice, that meant that Liddy devised an operation to burgle the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. in order to install wiretapping devices in several phones.

Back in 1973, box cover designs could be pretty minimalist.

The contemporary (1973) game Watergate (Bill Wetzel, Beck Designs) captures this spirit of intelligence operations for political ends: Players attempt to gather incriminating evidence about the others (their political competitors) which can be eliminated if enough information has been found.

Crime and Cover-Up: The Burglaries

The burglary was conducted on May 28, 1972. However, as some of the bugs were found not be working, the burglars resolved to return and fix the faulty devices on June 17. Then, a security guard of the Watergate noticed the suspicious activity and called the police (whom the burglars’ spotter Alfred Baldwin did not notice arriving, as he was distracted watching a movie). The five burglars, among them the former CIA officer James McCord, were arrested. One day later, the news broke that McCord was working for the CRP. That was embarrassing enough for the Nixon campaign (John Mitchell quickly claimed that McCord had been acting on his own at Watergate). It was possibly even worse for Nixon that several of the burglars had the phone number of E. Howard Hunt, one of the White House “Plumbers”, in their address books – and an enterprising young reporter of the Washington Post, Robert (Bob) Woodward called Hunt on June 19 and asked him for a comment. (Hunt’s reply: “Oh my God.”)

Not all the president’s men, but a lot of them. Four key players in the Watergate scandal on the administration/CRP side. Personally, I am enthralled by Liddy’s pithy statement. Cards and board from Watergate (Matthias Cramer, Capstone Games/Frosted Games).

At this point, Nixon (likely) did not know about Hunt’s involvement in the Watergate burglaries (in fact, Hunt had arranged them together with Liddy). Still, the connection of burglars to a White House official could be potentially rather embarrassing. Thus, Nixon’s special adviser John Ehrlichman ordered the White House legal adviser John Dean to destroy evidence in the White House safe of Hunt.

Ehrlichman just ordered Dean to get rid of evidence at the White House, thus shielding the president from any connections to the burglary.

A few days later, Nixon himself tasked his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman with obstructing the FBI investigation of the burglary (citing CIA-related national security concerns). At the same time, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler referred to the incident as a “third-rate burglary attempt” that had nothing to do with the White House in reply to the first article on the matter, written by Bob Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein.

Differences in style and biography: Woodward was a registered Republican, Yale graduate, and naval reserve officer (which opened some doors into security circles); the long-haired Bernstein had never finished college, but was well-connected in the counter culture and had more than a decade of journalistic experience when the Watergate burglary happened. After initial reluctance to work together, Woodward and Bernstein made the most dynamic duo of American journalism ever.

At this point, the stage was set as it is in Watergate (Matthias Cramer, Capstone Games/Frosted Games): The journalists of the Washington Post worked to uncover how the Watergate burglary was linked to the White House – and, unbeknownst to the public, Nixon and his associates at the White House and the CRP tried to cover up the evidence.

Reporting and Re-Election: Nixon’s Campaign Finance

Finding out about McCord’s ties to the CRP and the burglar’s acquaintance with Hunt was only the beginning for Bernstein and Woodward. They soon uncovered that one of the burglars, Bernard Barker, had apparently been receiving large sums of money out of CRP funds. Now the investigative work turned to campaign finance. Bernstein and Woodward called and visited dozens of CRP and White House officials (of which a few disgruntled ones were willing to share bits of information that hinted at illegal activities).

Two key events for the Editor player in Watergate: Deep Throat might re-open avenues of investigation, “Follow the money!” is the strongest reaction card of the game.

The most notorious source, however, was an acquaintance of Woodward’s whose unique position allowed him to have insight both into the White House and the FBI investigations. To protect the source’s identity, Woodward could only meet him in a parking garage in the middle of the night (to which he had to travel with at least two taxis to lose any potential tails). The trouble, however, was worth it: “Deep Throat” (as the source was soon called colloquially, taking the name of a contemporary pornographic movie) often pointed the reporters into fertile directions – most importantly with his insistence to investigate the campaign money trail. (The Watergate movie All the President’s Men, based on Bernstein’s and Woodward’s eponymous book, has Deep Throat say, “Follow the money,” but he probably never used those exact words.)

Woodward and Bernstein described Hugh Sloan as the rare honest person they met during the Watergate investigations.

Another key source was a former CRP employee: Hugh Sloan had resigned from his post as CRP treasurer because he was appalled with the irregularities of the campaign and its finance: He confirmed to the reporters that there was a special “security fund” out of which dubious activities were paid – usually in cash, with all bookkeeping being done on a single sheet of paper which was to be destroyed. And one of the five men who could authorize payments from this fund was John Mitchell.

With the information from Deep Throat, Sloan, and their own research into the elaborate money trail, Bernstein and Woodward could report that the Watergate burglary was connected to intelligence operations paid for by the CRP in October. However, the matter never gained much traction outside of the Washington Post. The New York Times and Time ran some scattered stories on it. Most media outlets relied entirely on the statements of the White House which denied the involvement of White House officials in vague terms. When election day rolled around in November 1972, Nixon won re-election in a landslide with 61% of the vote – a percentage which hasn’t been surpassed since.

Four more years! …or at least four steps of momentum movement in Nixon’s favor. His landslide election victory proved how little most Americans cared about the Watergate reporting by late 1972.

So much for today! Next time, we’ll have a look at what became of the burglars at court, how the scandal spread to the White House, and – spoiler! – how Richard Nixon lost his presidency over it.

Games Referenced

Watergate (Bill Wetzel, Beck Designs)

Watergate (Matthias Cramer, Capstone Games/Frosted Games)

Further Reading

The story was told shortly after the events by the two journalists who uncovered it: Bernstein, Carl/Woodward, Bob: All the President’s Men, Simon & Schuster, New York City, NY 1974 (covers events until spring 1973); and The Final Days, Simon & Schuster, New York City, NY 1976 (covers events from spring 1973 on).

A very comprehensive account of the entire scandal is Graff, Garrett M.: Watergate. A New History, Simon & Schuster, New York City, NY 2023.


7 thoughts on “A “Third-Rate Burglary Attempt” (Watergate, #1)

  1. Pete S/ SP

    Great post- it is not something I’ve ever really read up on, something I realise is a bit of a black hole in my contemporary history knowledge. As with most things I’ll read the books and play the games to get my grasp on history.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks! It’s a fascinating topic, and a rather complex one – you can look at it from the journalists’ perspective (as All the President’s Men does), from the administration’s, or from the average American’s at the time and always get an incomplete picture. Cramer’s Watergate is a very good game, but it’s so condensed (30min playtime) that you benefit a lot from existing knowledge to make sense of events and people (which you don’t need to enjoy the game). So, without a variety of sources it’s pretty hard to grasp the scandal entirely.
      …incidentally, the Historical Notes of the Watergate game are a pretty good starting point!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: “Executive Privilege” (Watergate, #2) | Clio's Board Games

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