Politics and civics

Watergate Redux: TIME’s man of the year is Judge John Sirica

The 1973 TIME man of the year was Judge John Sirica, better known as the “Watergate judge.” Sirica refused to believe that Watergate burglars acted alone; his perseverance led to Nixon’s resignation.

January 7, 1974

For his role in unraveling the truth about the Watergate break-in, TIME named Judge John Sirica its 1973 Man of the Year.

TIME Man of the Year The Watergate Judge
Judge John Joseph Sirica

On June 17, 1972, four men broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building. This “third-rate burglary” was orchestrated by the White House. It would, two years later, bring down President Richard M. Nixon.

When the Watergate burglary came before the DC court, Judge Sirica assigned the case to himself. In so doing, he became “the Watergate judge.”

In October 1972, the Washington Post story “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats” placed the responsibility for the Watergate burglary at the hands of aides to President Nixon.

James McCord, one of the burglars (known as the “plumbers”), wrote a letter to Judge Sirica in March 1973. He claimed that the burglars were being pressured to plead guilty and keep quiet. Judge Sirica read the letter aloud in his courtroom.

Four months later, Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon secretly recorded phone conversations. Butterfield is referred to in news reports as Federal Aviation Administration chief as well as a Nixon aide.

Concurrent with Judge Sirica’s court, Congress was also investigating the Watergate break-in. So was the Department of Justice. On October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Richardson refused, choosing instead to resign. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. Nixon persuaded next-in-succession Solicitor General Robert Bork (who President Ronald Reagan would unsuccessfully nominate to the Supreme Court) to can Cox. These events became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The Department of Justice appointed Leon Jaworski as the new special prosecutor on November 1.

Tapes confirmed Watergate link to White House

Judge Sirica would order President Nixon to give prosecutors the tape recordings of White House conversations about the Watergate break-in.

The tapes revealed that Nixon had approved plans for the Watergate coverup six days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex by men who were working for the Committee to Reelect the President.

The tapes, with their infamous missing 18 1/2 minutes, contributed to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

As the NYTimes reported in Judge Sirica’s obituary:

The two times Judge Sirica ordered Mr. Nixon to turn over his tapes, first for tapes of 9 conversations, then for tapes of 64, the United States Court of Appeals affirmed. The second time the President took the case to the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed Judge Sirica’s ruling as well, in a landmark decision that the President was subject to the orders of the High Court (emphasis added).

Judge Sirica’s suspicions proved solid: 19 officials of the Nixon administration and reelection campaign, including attorney general John Mitchell and two of Nixon’s closest aides (John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Bob Haldeman), went to jail.* In total, 40 government officials were indicted or jailed.

Facing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, Nixon – the 37th president of the United States – resigned on August 9, 1974. It was seven months and two days after TIME’s man of the year cover.

Nixon was the first President to resign his office. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, had been convicted of tax fraud in Maryland and forced to resign but his departure had nothing to do with Watergate. Congress appointed Gerald Ford as vice president in his stead.

Sirica, chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, was a Republican. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the Court on February 25, 1957. In 1971, by virtue of seniority, he became chief judge. Judge Sirica died in 1992 at age 88, after retiring from the bench in 1986.

And Sirica was the son of an immigrant: his father emigrated in 1887 from a village near Naples, Italy.

Watergate preceded by 1972 burglary

Although the focus of the Nixon resignation is on Watergate, the White House plumbers had burglarized psychiatrist Lewis Fielding’s office a year earlier.

Their target? Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. The resulting exposes by the New York Times and Washington Post embarrassed the Nixon White House and its predecessors. They revealed that American’s military and presidents had known for years that Vietnam was an unwinnable war.

Responses to The Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers and the case that followed reflected the degree to which the nation was divided over the war. Opponents of the war, such as Representative Edward I. Koch, of New York, and Prof. Hans Morgenthau, of the University of Chicago, strongly favored publication. Supporters of the war, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, were harsh in their criticism of The Times.

Those exposes also led to a showdown with the Supreme Court and a ruling re-enforcing the first amendment.

* These men were convicted of Watergate-related offenses

  1. Bernard L. Barker, burglar
  2. Charles Colson, special counsel to Nixon
  3. Dwight L. Chapin, deputy assistant to Nixon
  4. E. Howard Hunt, former CIA agent and consultant
  5. Egil Krogh, Jr., headed the White House Special Investigations Unit known as “the Plumbers”
  6. Eugenio Martinez, burglar
  7. Frank Sturgis, burglar
  8. Frederick C. LaRue, the bagman
  9. G. Gordon Liddy, chief operative in the White House Special Investigations Unit known as “the Plumbers”
  10. H.R. Bob Haldeman, White House chief of staff
  11. Herbert L. Porter, aide to the Committee to Re-elect the President
  12. Herbert W. Kalmbach, Nixon lawyer
  13. James W. McCord, Jr., former CIA employee and burglar
  14. Jeb Stuart Magruder, deputy campaign director
  15. John D. Ehrlichman, supervised the covert actions of the White House Special Investigations Unit known as “the Plumbers”
  16. John Dean, White House counsel
  17. John Mitchell, Nixon campaign director and U.S. attorney general under Nixon
  18. Richard G. Kleindienst, U.S. attorney general (one month sentence suspended)
  19. Robert C. Mardian, U.S. assistant attorney general
  20. Virgilio Gonzalez, burglar

Sources: NPRNYT, New York Daily News, and Wikipedia where linked above

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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