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Connie Lawn Headshot

Watergate Reflections 40 Years Later

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Forty years ago I had the good fortune of renting an apartment in Watergate South, in the beautiful Watergate complex. I had already started my own news bureau, Audio Video News, and used the address as my business location. I had been covering the White House and Washington since l968. How nice of Richard Nixon to advance my business by ordering a break-in of the Democratic National Committee. That was in the Watergate Office Buildings, across the grassy common area from Watergate South. We residents did not hear anything unusual that night -- the first information came from a dramatic headline in the Washington Post. My first reaction was, "the Nixon White House will do anything to stay in power." Attorney General John Mitchell and his colorful wife Martha lived in the Watergate complex closest to the Offices, and other Nixon officials also lived in the apartments. It was natural to think they were involved. But then, my second reaction was, "maybe the Democrats staged this to make the Republicans look bad." It was interesting to realize I suspected some White House involvement from the start. I had been covering the White House since l968, and learned early on, the reality was nothing like the courses I had studied as a Government major at Simmons College!

When I returned to the White House after the break-in, many of my colleagues were as skeptical as I was. We all believed they were involved, but it took two years of hard investigative work by the Washington Post and others, before President Nixon was forced to resign in August, 1974. In the meantime, I tried to uncover what I could. My fellow reporters were amazed when I told them I lived there and could get them into the complex! Soon they began to visit me, in small groups each time. Some of the most sweeping photos of the complex were taken from my balcony. Visitors to the Kennedy Center, across the way, were seen taking photos of us.

Some of the reporters went to the apartments of the Mitchells and others in the Administration, and staked them out for comments. Of course they were furious, as were the other residents. The neighbors stormed the management, demanding to know how those g.d. reporters got in. But the managers said, "She rents here, has a lease, and we can't force her out until the lease expires." (I did buy an apartment in another condo after, knowing I would not be welcomed to stay!)

Throughout the long Watergate ordeal, I covered as much as I could in person for a variety of radio stations around the world. There was no internet or live cable t.v. in those days, so we had the field for ourselves. There were the dramatic hearings on Capitol Hill and the trials in the Court House a short distance away. There were also the White House briefings, which were more rancorous than any I have been to since. I even had my own "deep throat," whom I actually met in a garage or on the steps of his office building. He was a senior Government official, and knew a lot. But, he was not the real deep throat!

The most poignant incidents occurred in the roach-infested cafeteria of the D.C. Courthouse. We were free to mingle with the defendants, the lawyers and even an occasional prisoner from the jails. I established a relationship with the Cubans who actually conducted the break in. They thought they were carrying out a patriotic act for the CIA and for their new homeland. Instead, they were duped.

I also felt terribly sorry for the wives of the defendants. They bravely came into court each day with their husbands, trying to portray support and love. They were strong, even when spit or hissed at by the crowd. Often, when powerful men commit crimes, the family suffers the most.

Perhaps no one suffered more than Nixon's wife Pat and his two beautiful daughters -- what they must have gone through in public and private. On the final night, after his resignation speech, the president locked us in the press room for about 30 minutes while he took a final walk around the grounds. Later, after we were free to leave, a few of us chose to spend the night in the press room. I really believed the president might commit suicide. I napped with my head on a desk. A few of my colleagues slept on couches (we had a couple in the Press Room in those days), or they tried to sleep on piles of papers on the floor.

The next day, the president and his family flew off in his helicopter. He was brought down by his hatreds and paranoia. Gerald Ford became president and pardoned Richard Nixon the next week. That may have doomed his chances for election.

I went back to my Watergate apartment, and still continue a long career in reporting. There have been many major stories since them, but few as gut wrenching and unnecessary as Watergate.

You can read more about this in Connie's book, "You Wake Me Each Morning, 2010 Edition." It is online in print and electronic version.