Lessons from Watergate: Reporter’s notebook

On the morning of June 17, 1972, I got on an airplane in Washington, D.C., and headed for New York, part of my duties as the anchor of the Saturday ABC network news. By chance, I sat down next to Joe Mohbat, the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

“Heard about the break-in at our headquarters?” Joe asked.

I hadn’t.

ABC News
Sam Donaldson reports on the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. on ABC’s Weekend News, June 17, 1972.

He told me that five men had been caught by the police in the early morning hours inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building complex. What were they doing there? Obviously, if they had been looking for money they would have tried to rob a bank or a jewelry store, but the headquarters of a political party?

We both speculated it was the work of people looking for information to help the party’s main opponent in that November’s election, President Richard Nixon, who was seeking a second term.

But jumping to that obvious conclusion was a long way from immediately believing that Nixon himself had anything to do with this burglary or understanding that a forthcoming investigation of more than two years would end by forcing Nixon to resign from his office, one step ahead of the sheriff.

Assigned by ABC News at the outset to cover Watergate, I had no idea how important it would become in the history of our country.

ABC Photo Archives
Sam Donaldson and Frank Reynolds report from the House Judiciary Committee Impeachment of Richard M. Nixon.

Watergate is a story about how ordinary people in and out of government, working within the Constitutional and legal framework of our system, were more powerful than a rogue president and all the forces at his command.

Begin with Frank Wills, a private security guard, age 24. On his first early morning rounds, he found the lock on a back door of a Watergate office building taped open. He removed the…

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