How Watergate Changed US Politics - 'Watergate: A New History' Excerpt - Esquire.com
Tuesday, June 20th, 1972 was Richard Nixon’s first day back at the White House after five well-dressed men—some apparently linked to his re-election campaign—had been arrested Saturday morning at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Nixon had been at his vacation home in Key Biscayne, Florida, when word of the arrests first spread—his aides were spread across the country, too—and, as later investigations made clear, it was only when they reconvened in D.C. that the attempted cover-up kicked into high gear. Tuesday, June 20th, was the day when the White House tape recorders recorded what would later become the infamous 18 -minute gap, erased for still-unknown purposes.
Yet arguably that day’s biggest political development came not in D.C. but in Brooklyn: There, a political newcomer named Elizabeth Holtzman shocked the New York and Washington establishments by defeating the fifty-year incumbent congressman, Emanuel Celler. The thirty-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Radcliffe eked out a victory by just 610 votes among 31,000 ballots—an upset, and a generational shift no less momentous than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, in 2016.
The victory by Holtzman—until then the youngest-ever congresswoman— immediately reshuffled Capitol Hill. Celler had long headed the House Judiciary Committee; he was replaced by Representative Pete Rodino, whose name—and whose methodical investigation—would, a year later, become as well known as the burglary itself. “If the impeachment process had gone to the Judiciary Committee under Manny Celler, it would have died there,” Democratic leader Tip O’Neill later wrote. Yet long before anyone was even whispering that the burglary might lead to a such a climax, the door was opening to just that. No one understood it that night, but as Jimmy Breslin wrote later, “The primary election between Holtzman and Celler could be considered one of the most meaningful elections the nation has had.”
The generational shift from Celler to Holtzman and the hand-off to Rodino were key milestones in the upheaval that swept across the capital from 1972 to 1974, as the scandal that would eventually sink Nixon unfolded.
Viewed a half-century later, Watergate stands in many ways as the dividing line between old Washington and the new, marking a sea change in power, institutional dynamics, and politics that heralded most all of what followed. Watergate stands simultaneously as the last scandal of...
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