It is said that one student’s first reaction to reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, perhaps the single best known of all English plays—and one whose wording contributed dozens and dozens of phrases to the English lexicon, was that it was little more than “a collection of popular quotes”.
So it is with Watergate: there are dozens of popular words and phrases in use today that can be directly traced to the unfolding of that scandal.
Here are some of them:
“18½ Minute Gap”: Description of the missing portion of the tape recording of the Nixon-Haldeman meeting of June 20, 1972, which was three days after the arrest of the Watergate burglars. Haldeman’s notes contain the word “Watergate”. The gap was said to have been discovered when copies were being made of the tapes in anticipation of turning them over to Judge Sirica. Disclosure on November 21, 1973 led to an Evidentiary Hearing and empanelling of six tape experts. Attention was focused on the President’s long time personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who had helped to transcribe the tapes. The matter ultimately was referred to a Watergate grand jury. Woods’ attorneys presented evidence that showed the tape recorder had a broken bridge rectifier that could have caused the erasers. The grand jury issued a report but no indictments. The mystery of whether the tape was deliberately erased and who might have done it, as well as what was on it, continues to this day.
“At that point in time”: The title of a Watergate book by Fred Thompson, who had been minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. The phrase had been used by a number of witnesses in claiming ignorance of matters being disclosed as a result of their hearings.
“A Cancer on the Presidency”: Phrase used by John Dean, Counsel to President Nixon, in meeting with him on May 21, 1973, as he struggled to explain how the growth of the Watergate scandal was engulfing the Nixon Administration. President Nixon maintained this was the first detailed information he had learned about possible criminality the had occurred during the cover-up.
“Containment; Containment Strategy”: Description used within the Nixon White House to describe efforts being undertaken to limit the political damage from the Watergate break-in. Whether Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman appreciated that this involved the illegal acts of the Watergate cover-up orchestrated by John Dean and others at the CRP lies at the heart of the Watergate scandal.
“Covert”: CIA term of art, characterizing an operation unknown or undisclosed to others. Also the only word used in seeking John Ehrlichman’s consent for what turned out to be the Plumbers’ intended break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office during the White House investigation of the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Ehrlichman maintained that that covert did not necessarily mean illegal, but Judge Gesell ruled that any undisclosed investigation by the government (without a court order) was per se illegal.
“Cox’s Army”: Nickname used by members of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force to describe their role and operational expectations under Archibald Cox.
“Deep Six”: Instruction supposedly given by John Ehrlichman to John Dean concerning what to do with politically sensitive materials found in Howard Hunt’s White House safe. It is not clear whether this was meant to mean “bury this so deeply that it cannot be uncovered” (ie: six feet under) or “toss this overboard so it is completely destroyed”. The materials were given to Acting FBI Director Pat Gray, who kept them at home and later burned them in his fireplace.
“Deep Throat”: The name of a widely distributed 1972 pornographic movie starring Linda Lovelace, that was later used as the nickname of Bob Woodward’s primary government source during the Watergate investigation. It is said name was coined at the publisher’s request to liven up the book. Deep Throat’s identity remained a secret for over three decades, until Mark Felt’s daughter, came forth in 2005 to claim the former Acting FBI Director was Woodward’s source. While Felt may have been Woodward’s principal government source, many still believe the actual character portrayed in the book and movie is an artistic composite.
“Dirty Tricks”: Phrase used to describe tactics designed to disrupt a political opponent’s campaign events or to distribute disinformation. An alternate phrase is “black advance”.
“Expletive Deleted”: Notation in White House transcripts of presidential conversations released on April 30, 1974, showing where a swear word used by the President had been omitted from the transcript. Virtually all such deletions were for the adjective, ‘god-damn’, although the public assumed otherwise. The phrase is used today to indicate omission of a swear word in public commentary.
“Firestorm of Protest”: Term used by Al Haig, Haldeman’s replacement as White House Chief of Staff, to describe the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox firing in the Saturday Night Massacre, as well as the reaction to release of the ‘smoking gun’ transcript.
“Follow the Money”: Deep Throat’s supposed explicit instruction to Bob Woodward in unraveling the Watergate scandal. The phrase first appeared in the movie version of All the President’s Men and is said to be the complete invention of William Goldberg, the author of the book’s screenplay.
“Great Stone Face”: Description on the White House tapes of how former Attorney General was expected to deny any knowledge or involvement in the Watergate scandal. He would sit there with his “great stone face” and deny everything.
“Hush Money”: Prosecutors’ characterization of the $400,000 provided to those arrested in the Watergate burglary after their arrest and prior to their sentencing by Judge Sirica. It was conceded by the Special Prosecutor during the cover-up trial that all of this money went for documented legal and living expenses for the defendants and their families in the long period before their trials. The issue, however, was one of intent–and whether it was really provided for the purpose of buying continued silence by the defendants.
“I’m not a crook”: Statement made by President Nixon at his press conference of November 17, 1973.
“Inoperative”: Adjective suggested by a reporter on April 17, 1973, to characterize whether Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, still stood behind prior statements he had made to reporters during the Watergate investigation. Ziegler agreed his prior statements were now inoperative, thereby destroying his own credibility as Nixon’s chief spokesman.
“Limited Hang Out”; “Modified Limited Hang Out”: Phrases used to describe the idea of disclosing additional information about what the White House knew about the Watergate scandal to try to reduce the pressure for further investigation—preferably when the President was out of the country, to limit his access for follow up questions.
“My Mother was a saint”: Description used by President Nixon in recalling his mother during the emotional good-bye to his staff on August 9, 1974, before boarding the helicopter to leave the White House—and the presidency—forever.
“Nobody Drowned in Watergate”: Thinly disguised reference to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, in a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy at Chappaquiddick on July 19, 1969—an incident many thought was successfully covered up by Democratic operatives.
“Our long national nightmare”: Opening phrase in first speech given by newly elevated President Gerald Ford on August 9, 1974, following President Nixon’s resignation.
“Rose Mary Stretch”: Characterization of explanation of Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s personal secretary, of how she might have inadvertently caused a portion of the 18½ minute gap by keeping her foot on the tape recorder’s pedal while stretching to answer the telephone. A picture of her awkward re-enactment was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
“Saturday Night Massacre”: The name used in the media to describe Nixon’s reaction to learning that Cox had reneged on his prior agreement to accept third party authentication of White House tape transcripts. Nixon wanted Cox fired, but Attorney General Elliot Richardson–who may have inadvertently misinformed Nixon as to Cox’s intensions during intense negotiations–chose to resign instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus offered to resign, but was terminated for refusing to follow the President’s directive. Solicitor General Robert Bork, third in line of authority at the Department of Justice, carried out the Presidential order on October 19, 1973, firing Cox, abolishing the Watergate Special Prosecution Force and folding the investigation back into the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. A firestorm of protest followed and the White House announced the following Tuesday that it would turn over the subpoenaed tapes to Judge Sirica and would continue the WSPF under a newly named Special Prosecutor.
“Sinister Force”: Phrase used by Alexander Haig, Haldeman’s replacement as White House Chief of Staff, in speculating about the origins of a series of startling revelations that engulfed the Nixon White House during Watergate—particularly in attempting to explain the 18½ Minute Gap.
“Smoking Gun”: Being caught with a smoking gun is thought to be irrefutable proof of guilt. Also the characterization first used by this author to describe his understanding of the tape of the Nixon-Haldeman conversation of June 23, 1972, wherein Haldeman secured Nixon’s consent to John Dean’s suggestion that they get the CIA to ask the FBI to put off its interrogation of two individuals: Ken Dahlberg and David Ogarrio. In Haldeman’s words: “Their investigation is now leading into some productive areas-because they’ve been able to trace the money–not through the money itself-but through the bank sources–the banker. And, it now goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.” Haldeman statement to Nixon on June 23, 1972, which culminated in Nixon agreeing to Dean’s suggestion of using the CIA to get the FBI to avoid interviewing two witnesses who forwarded political donations to CRP. Release of this tape on August 5, 1974, characterized as the “Smoking Gun,” confirmed a clear obstruction of justice had occurred and led directly to President Nixon’s resignation four days later. It later developed that CIA intervention had only postponed the two interviews for nine days and that, when interviewed, no wrongdoing was discovered. In a footnote at page 55 of his 2014 book, The Nixon Defense, John Dean admitted that the tape had been misunderstood for four decades – and that the intent was only to protect the identities of prominent Democrats who had secretly donated to Nixon’s re-election campaign.
“Stonewall”: Allusion to Thomas Jackson, the famous Confederate General whose division held the line “like a stone wall” to repel a Yankee charge. Later used to characterize a rigidly non-cooperative defense response to a scandal–and the instruction allegedly given by President Nixon to John Mitchell on March 22, 1973 in order to “save the [cover-up] plan”. Some believe the transcription of this tape by the House Judiciary Impeachment Inquiry staff is in error and may have been deliberately mis-transcribed.
“Third Rate Burglary”: Dismissive characterization of the Watergate break-in used by Press Secretary Ron Ziegler in his first public comment about the arrests of the Watergate burglars.
“Twisting Slowly, Slowly in the Wind”: John Ehrlichman’s characterization of Pat Gray’s predicament as Senate confirmation for FBI Director became less and less likely due to revelations about his level of cooperation with John Dean during the Watergate investigation. It was clear that he was not going to be confirmed, but the White House did not want to rescind his nomination until they had another candidate to replace him.
“Watergate”: The name of the hotel/office complex on the banks of the Potomac River, where the Democratic National Committee’s offices were located. This soon became shorthand for the entire scandal. The suffix ” –gate” has been used ever since to describe a brewing scandal as one of immense potential proportions.
“What did the President know and when did he know it?”: Question posed by Senator Howard Baker early in the Ervin Committee hearings and seen as summarizing the essence of their Committee’s investigation. Paraphrased today to suggest the essence of any inquiry into other possible wrong-doing.
“White House Horrors”: John Mitchell’s characterization of the long list of politically embarrassing and possibly illegal actions in the first term of the Nixon White House, including the Huston Plan, the Fielding break-in, warrantless wiretaps on reporters and NSC staffers, the milk producers contributions in exchange for political favors, etc. Files on these matters were taken from the Counsel’s office by John Dean in mid-April, 1973, and disclosed to career prosecutors in an attempt to obtain personal immunity. When the White House attempted to regain possession of these papers, Judge Sirica ordered copies turned over to the WSPF and to the Ervin Committee.
“Woodstein”: Shorthand phrase to describe the Washington Post reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting kept the Watergate scandal in the news, in spite of the attempted cover-up.