On June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested during a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. According to news reports of the time, the men wore surgical gloves, carried a walkie-talkie and short-wave police scanner, 40 rolls of unexposed film and $2,300 in crisp $100 bills. They also possessed two sophisticated listening devices, and had removed several ceiling panels in the office. The men emerged from the room with their hands up.
While there was no immediate explanation of their motives, the crime turned out to be the tip of a very dirty iceberg—one that would barrel through the White House over the next two years and ultimately topple the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Below, a look at some of the key players in the Watergate scandal and how their lives unfolded in the shadow of a national disgrace. Many wrote books and a few found religion.
HIS ROLE: A former CIA officer and FBI agent, McCord was one of the five burglars arrested at the Watergate complex, and the “chief wiretapper” of the operation. During the burglary, McCord, then security director of the Committee to Reelect the President (or CREEP), left a piece of tape on the latch of a stairwell door, inadvertently alerting a security guard to the burglary in progress.
THE UPSHOT: McCord was convicted on charges of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping, but only served four months of his original sentence of one to five years. His sentence was reduced after he implicated White House officials in the cover-up. “There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent,” McCord stated in the March 19, 1973 letter to Judge John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate trials. “Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation and impact of the government’s case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants.”
POST-SCANDAL: McCord has kept a low profile following his release from prison. In 1974, he published a book about his involvement in Watergate, titled A Piece of Tape—The Watergate Story: Fact and Fiction.
HIS ROLE: A Cuban refugee and locksmith by trade, Gonzalez was one of the five burglars arrested at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. He had been recruited in Miami by E. Howard Hunt, who had played a key role in the CIA’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.
THE UPSHOT: Gonzalez, an anti-Fidel Castro activist, insisted during his trial that he had been told the Watergate operation would advance Cuban liberation. “I keep feeling about my country and the way people suffer over there,” Gonzalez told Judge John Sirica. “That is the only reason I did my cooperation in that situation.” He spent about a year in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After Watergate, Gonzalez returned to Miami and his career as a locksmith. In 1977, he and three other men known as the “foot soldiers” of Watergate—Bernard L. Barker, Eugenio Martínez and Frank Sturgis—received $200,000 from Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign fund. The payment served as settlement for the four men’s civil suit, in which they claimed they had been tricked into participating in the Watergate burglary.
E. Howard Hunt
HIS ROLE: A former CIA operative, Hunt was a member of the so-called “Plumbers,” an informal White House team tasked with preventing and repairing information “leaks” such as the 1971 release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers. After investigators found his phone number in address books belonging to the Watergate burglars, they connected the dots between the burglary, President Nixon and his re-election campaign.
THE UPSHOT: As Hunt told the Senate Watergate committee during the investigation in 1973, “I cannot escape feeling that the country I have served for my entire life and which directed me to carry out the Watergate entry is punishing me for doing the very things it trained and directed me to do.” He was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping, and served 33 months in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After Hunt was released from prison, he moved to Florida, started a new family and continued to write spy novels—as he had been doing for years—totaling about 80 over the course of his life. He won $650,000 in a libel suit in 1981, after a right-wing newspaper linked him to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, yet received none of the money when the suit was overturned several years later. Weighed down by legal fees stemming from Watergate, he declared bankruptcy in 1997. He died in 2007, months before the publication of his co-written memoir, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond.
G. Gordon Liddy
HIS ROLE: Liddy, a former FBI agent who served as general counsel for the Committee to Re-elect the President—a campaign that eventually led to the unraveling of the Nixon administration—was responsible for planning and supervising the Watergate break-in. According to testimony heard in the trial, he received about $332,000 in campaign funds, which he used to carry out a number of intelligence-gathering operations.
THE UPSHOT: He was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and spent four and a half years in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After his release in 1977, Liddy remained in the Washington, D.C. area and rebranded himself as a conservative talk-show host and military and weapons expert. He also worked as an actor, appearing on shows such as “Miami Vice.” In his 1980 memoir, Will, he talks about conquering his fears by subjecting himself to gruesome experiments in which he eats rat meat and burns his own flesh. He retired from the airwaves in 2012, saying he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. He died on March 30, 2021, at age 90.
Charles ‘Chuck’ Colson
HIS ROLE: As special advisor to the president, Colson was the mastermind behind many of the “dirty tricks” and political maneuvers—including spying on political opponents—that brought down the Nixon administration. As Colson told E. Howard Hunt in a recorded telephone conversation, he would write in his memoirs that “Watergate was brilliantly conceived as an escapade that would divert the Democrats’ attention from the real issues, and therefore permit us to win a landslide that we probably wouldn’t have won otherwise.”
THE UPSHOT: Colson pled guilty to obstructing justice in a Watergate-related case involving Daniel Ellsberg, in which he ran a smear campaign seeking to discredit the government contractor who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
POST-SCANDAL: After spending seven months in prison, Colson emerged with a new outlook on life: He wrote Born Again, a book about his embracing Christianity, and founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization that brings religious messaging to inmates and their families. Years later, he said of his transformation, "I shudder to think of what I'd been if I had not gone to prison… Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it's not prosperity or pleasure that's important, but the maturing of the soul." Colson died in 2012.
HIS ROLE: A former military prosecutor, Segretti was an operative for the Committee to Re-elect the President, known as the architect behind Nixon’s campaign of political sabotage against Democratic opponents. In one such smear campaign, he created an anonymous letter falsely claiming that former senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson had fathered an illegitimate child with a teenager.
THE UPSHOT: After the Watergate investigation revealed the full extent of his activity, he pled guilty to charges of distributing illegal campaign literature, spending four months in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After the scandal, Segretti moved back to California, his home state, and kept a low profile, practicing civil and business law from his Newport Beach office. But in 1995, his ran unsuccessfully for an Orange County judgeship. "They all wanted to talk about Nixon and Watergate," he said of the public reaction to his campaign. "It really hit a raw nerve." In 2000 he returned to politics briefly, co-chairing John McCain’s presidential campaign in Orange County. In 2018, when he visited a U.S. History class at his alma mater, San Marino High School, he had this to say about Watergate. “The idea…sold to me at the beginning was to disrupt the Democratic presidential primary campaign,” he said. “Things morphed from doing a few things to going a little deeper. They were probably things I should not have done.”
THE WHITE HOUSE INSIDERS
HIS ROLE: Ehrlichman, Nixon’s advisor for domestic affairs, also served as head of the “Plumbers.” He attempted to cover up the botched Watergate break-in.
THE UPSHOT: In 1973, amid the unfolding scandal, Ehrlichman resigned. He was later tried and convicted of perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice for his involvement in Watergate, serving 18 months in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After his release, Ehrlichman, who had been disbarred, divorced his wife and moved to New Mexico, where he focused on writing. In addition to several novels, he published a 1982 memoir titled Witness to Power: The Nixon Years, in which he wrote, "I don't miss Richard Nixon very much, and Richard Nixon probably doesn't miss me." He later moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a business consultant to the hazardous-waste removal industry and, in 1996, exhibited a collection of pen-and-ink drawings from the Watergate years. He died in 1999, having admitted more than 20 years earlier that his Watergate woes were largely self-inflicted: “If I had any advice for my kids, it would be never—to never, ever—defer your moral judgments to anybody.”
HIS ROLE: Serving as White House counsel from 1970 to 1973, Dean helped cover up the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and illegal intelligence-gathering. But as the investigation was closing in, he had warned fellow staffers, “The jig is up. It’s over,” and reportedly said to Nixon, “We have a cancer within, close to, the presidency, that is growing.” Nixon fired him shortly thereafter.
THE UPSHOT: Dean became one of the first administration officials to reveal the cover-up, implicating Nixon and other officials during his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973. He was charged with obstruction of justice and served four months in prison.
POST-SCANDAL: After his release, Dean moved to California and reinvented himself as an investment banker. He wrote in his 1976 Watergate memoir, Blind Ambition: “I don’t want to be known as just the snitch of Watergate,” following up that book in 1983 with a second memoir titled, Lost Honor. Dean has become a go-to source for journalists seeking to contrast the Nixon and Trump administrations. "I've been inside a cover-up,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2017. “I know why we could make certain things go away and other things not go away."
Read More: How John Dean Helped Bring Down Nixon
HIS ROLE: The Nixon administration White House chief of staff—known as the gatekeeper” to the Oval Office who once called himself "the president's son-of-a-bitch"—became a key figure in the Watergate probe as investigators zeroed in on tape-recorded conversations of White House meetings. One of the tapes included a now-famous 18-and-a-half-minute gap, which was later revealed to include a conversation between Haldeman and Nixon. Haldeman was also implicated in the so-called “smoking gun” tape, in which Nixon talked about using the CIA to divert the FBI’s investigation of Watergate.
THE UPSHOT: Haldeman resigned on April 30, 1973 along with other top staffers in the Nixon administration. He was tried and convicted of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice for his attempts to cover up the Watergate scandal.
POST-SCANDAL: After serving 18 months in prison, Haldeman worked as a business consultant and focused on his real-estate interests and Florida-based Sizzler steakhouse franchises. In a post-Watergate memoir titled The Ends of Power, published in 1978, Haldeman wrote: “I believed in tough campaigning, too, but even from my hard‐line standpoint, Nixon went too far at times. But political strategy wasn't my province, only the mechanics.” He died in 1993, six months before the book was published.
HIS ROLE: Once described as “the most powerful man in the Cabinet,” the notoriously gruff and fiercely loyal Mitchell was Nixon’s attorney general before he resigned in 1972 to become director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. According to testimony in the Watergate hearings, Mitchell approved the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
THE UPSHOT: Mitchell, who was convicted for his role in the conspiracy and ended up serving 19 months, said to a reporter covering the trial, “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.” He was referring to his wife from whom he was separated.
POST-SCANDAL: After his release, Mitchell lived in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and founded the consulting firm Global Research International, Inc. While Mitchell reportedly accepted a $50,000 advance from Simon and Schuster for his memoirs, he ultimately chose to keep quiet on the subject—and was sued in 1981 for failing to deliver the book. He died in 1988.
Jeb Stuart Magruder
HIS ROLE: A White House communications adviser, Magruder played a key role in planning the Watergate break-in, and later covering it up.
THE UPSHOT: Convicted of perjury, Magruder spent seven months in prison. At his sentencing he said it is difficult to deal with the “disappointment I see in the eyes of my friends, the confusion I see in the eyes of my children, the heartbreak I see in the eyes of my wife and, probably more difficult, the contempt I see in the eyes of others.”
POST-SCANDAL: After his release in 1976, Magruder left politics and earned a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, which led to leadership roles at churches in Ohio, then Kentucky. Though he wrote two books in the years following the scandal—An American Life: One Man’s Road to Watergate and From Power to Peace—he did not reveal until 2003 that he had personally heard Nixon authorize the Watergate break-in. For a time, he led an Ohio commission on ethics, though he reflected, “I’m aware that there might be some irony associated with that.” He died in 2014, in Danbury, Connecticut.
HIS ROLE: As deputy White House chief of staff to President Nixon from 1969 to 1973, Butterfield controlled the secret taping system Nixon had installed in the Oval Office. He revealed the existence of the tapes when he was questioned by the Senate Watergate Committee, effectively sealing Nixon’s fate.
THE UPSHOT: Ironically, Butterfield liked Nixon—but he did not want to lie to investigators. “I was facing a true dilemma: I wanted very much to respect Nixon’s wishes and at the same time to be cooperative and forthright with the congressional investigators,” he later said. “The wording of their questions meant everything to me. And when Don Sanders, the deputy minority counsel…asked the $64,000 question, clearly and directly, I felt I had no choice but to respond in like manner.” With Nixon’s resignation, Butterfield was also dismissed from his post as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration—to which he’d been appointed by the president.
POST-SCANDAL: Butterfield had trouble finding work for two years following Watergate, but eventually found a job as chief operating officer at an air-transport company, then ran a financial holdings company and a consulting company in California. In 2015, he re-entered the spotlight as the subject of a book by Bob Woodward, titled The Last of the President’s Men. In it, Butterfield describes his reaction as he watched Nixon’s farewell address: “I could not believe that people were crying in that room… It was sad, yes. But justice had prevailed. Inside I was cheering.”
THE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR
HIS ROLE: Assigned in May of 1973 as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal, Archibald Cox was fired from his post by President Nixon just five months later in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”—a White House shake-up that led to the resignation of two other Justice Department staffers. Cox was fired after insisting President Nixon give him unrestricted access to tapes of conversations leading up to the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.
THE UPSHOT: Following his dismissal, Cox said in a statement: "Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people." Nixon’s firing of Cox fueled the Watergate investigation, leading to a public backlash against Nixon and Congressional resolutions calling for his impeachment.
POST-SCANDAL: After leaving Washington, Cox—who had previously served as solicitor general—taught constitutional law at his alma mater, Harvard Law School. He also worked on the legal team of Common Cause, an advocacy group that lobbies for campaign finance reform. Though he published several books on labor and constitutional law, he did not write about Watergate. But sometime after the scandal, he reportedly stated: “one of the important lessons of Watergate was that unless the government trusts the people and conducts itself in an honorable fashion, then the people won’t trust the government.”
THE AXE MAN
HIS ROLE: Bork, a conservative judge, solicitor general and acting attorney general in the Nixon administration, carried out President Nixon’s orders to fire special counsel Archibald Cox, who had subpoenaed conversations taped in the Oval Office. Cox’s dismissal, on Oct. 1973, became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
THE UPSHOT: Despite Bork’s firing of Cox, the Supreme Court eventually ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes.
POST-SCANDAL: In addition to his involvement in Watergate, Bork is also remembered for his failed Supreme Court nomination in 1987, when he was rejected by the U.S. Senate for his conservative policies. So significant was the failed nomination that, “my name became a verb,” (meaning to attack or defeat a candidate for public office) Bork told CNN years later. “And I regard that as one form of immortality.” He went on to serve as a fellow in conservative think tanks and as an advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In his 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Bork criticizes American society and modern liberalism in particular, writing that “decline runs across our entire culture'' and ''the rot is spreading.'' In later years, he married a former Catholic nun and converted to Catholicism. He died in 2012.
HIS ROLE: Known for decades only as “Deep Throat,” the mysterious government source who helped Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward untangle the Watergate conspiracy, Mark Felt revealed his identity in 2005. A senior FBI official during the Watergate years, Mark Felt met from time to time with Woodward—always in deserted parking garages, and always taking extreme precautions to ensure they had not been followed—providing clues that guided the journalist’s reporting. The Nixon White House was “underhanded and unknowable,” he once told Woodward.
THE UPSHOT: With the 1974 release of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about Watergate, All the President’s Men, followed by the movie by the same name, Felt became the most famous anonymous source in journalism. But he was unhappy with the nickname he earned in the Washington Post newsroom, a combination of “deep background” and the titled of a pornographic film released in 1972.
POST-SCANDAL: Though many guessed that Felt was Deep Throat, he repeatedly denied the speculations, including in his 1979 memoir, The FBI Pyramid, in which he contrasted his time under J. Edgar Hoover, whom he revered, with his service under Nixon, whom he disliked. He revealed himself as the Watergate source in a 2005 Vanity Fair article which led to a memoir published a year later, titled A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being 'Deep Throat’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington. In the book, Felt writes, "People will debate for a long time whether I did the right thing by helping Woodward… The bottom line is that we did get the whole truth out, and isn't that what the FBI is supposed to do?" He died in 2008, at the age of 95.
HIS ROLE: As chairman of the Senate Watergate committee that investigated the affair in televised hearings, Ervin became a national hero for serving as a moral compass. The purpose of the hearings, he said at the outset, was to "probe into assertions that the very system has been subverted." The hearings showcased Ervin’s folksy demeanor and direct speech. When criticized for being too harsh on the witnesses, he countered, "I'm just an old country lawyer, and I don't know the finer ways to do it. I just have to do it my way."
THE UPSHOT: More than a year after the hearings began, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office. Ervin retired four months later.
POST-SCANDAL: After Watergate, Ervin returned to his hometown, Morgantown, N.C., where he wrote three books and occasionally appeared in television ads for American Express. As he wrote in The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy, published in 1980, "Nixon's memoirs insinuate that he was driven from the presidency by a hostile press and vindictive partisans, and not by his own misdeeds”—a statement Ervin said is "totally incompatible" with the facts. All his books, including the subsequent Humor of a Country Lawyer and Preserving the Constitution: The Autobiography of Sen. Sam Ervin, were first drafted in pencil on yellow legal pads. Ervin died in 1988.
HIS ROLE: A Republican senator from Tennessee, Baker was vice chairman of the Senate Watergate committee that investigated the scandal, and is famously remembered for asking former White House counsel John Dean on June 29, 1973: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
THE UPSHOT: Though Baker’s initial goal was to prove the accusations against Nixon were unfounded, testimony he heard and evidence he reviewed during the hearings changed his views. As he told The Associated Press, “it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”
POST-SCANDAL: Baker, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, continued to serve in the U.S. Senate until 1985, when he retired to practice law. He returned to Washington two years later to serve as Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff and later served as ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush. Baker particularly took pride in his skill as an “eloquent listener,” saying, "There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say. You don't have to agree, but you have to hear what they've got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you'll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership."
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
THEIR ROLE: Young reporters at The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein (or “Woodstein” as they were known in the newsroom) teamed up to cover the burglary at the Watergate complex, and the ensuing scandal. Piecing together the story from dozens of sources, many of them anonymous, they leaned primarily on tips from a mysterious government operative nicknamed “Deep Throat,” who revealed himself in 2005 as FBI agent Mark Felt.
THE UPSHOT: Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate earned the Post a Pulitzer Prize, and cemented the reporters’ reputations.
POST-SCANDAL: Woodward, who still works at The Washington Post and has received numerous journalism awards, went on to write 18 books, many of them on the legacy of Watergate and on U.S. presidents—including his 2018 exposé Fear: Trump in the White House. Bernstein, who was married to writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron for several years, left the Post in 1977. He went on to publish magazine articles, and held a senior position at ABC News. In his 1989 book, Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir, he revealed that his parents were members of the Communist Party of America. In 2007, he published a biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman In Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
HIS ROLE: As executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991, Bradlee oversaw the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal—despite facing fierce criticism for the aggressive investigation. A year earlier, Bradlee had defied the Nixon administration in his decision to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a series of top-secret files detailing the U.S. government’s activities in Vietnam.
THE UPSHOT: The Post’s relentless reporting on Watergate ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The investigation helped solidify the paper’s reputation for hard-hitting journalism.
POST-SCANDAL: Bradlee continued to lead the Post until his retirement in 1991, overseeing coverage that earned the paper a total of 17 Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his career. Colleagues report that actor Jason Robards’ onscreen portrayal of him as a brash and boisterous newsroom figure, in the 1976 film version of All the President’s Men, was spot-on. In his 1995 memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, Bradlee recalls the moment when Nixon announced his resignation: “I remember folding my hands together between my knees and laying my forehead down on my desk for a very private ‘Holy Moly.’... Nixon—not the Post—’got’ Nixon, but the Post’s reporting forced the story onto the national agenda, and kept it there until the world understood how grievously the Constitution was being undermined.” Bradlee died in 2014.