The Other Watergate Tape

On August 9, 1974, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon became the first-ever President to resign from office. In his resignation letter, Nixon explicitly referenced something called “the Watergate matter.” Specifically, Nixon stated that “from the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.” 

The Watergate scandal, as it is more commonly called, stemmed from a clandestine effort by Nixon’s 1972 re-election committee to unduly and unlawfully spy on the Democratic National Committee (“the DNC”). In May of that year, members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President — which went by the unfortunate acronym “CREEP” — “broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. for the first time, bugging the telephones of staffers,” as recounts. But not all the listening devices worked, and on June 17th, five members of CREEP broken into the DNC headquarters, again, to repair some of the bugs. They were caught, and ultimately, their efforts came to light.

For President Nixon, the question quickly became “what did the president know, and when did he know it?” That phrase, first uttered by a Republican Senator in an effort to downplay the President’s culpability, ultimately became the one that would doom the Nixon Presidency. While little to no evidence ever emerged that Nixon himself ordered the break-in or was even aware of the plan, ultimately, ample proof of his awareness after-the-fact emerged. Nixon had previously installed a taping system in his own White House in an effort to keep visitors to the Oval Office honest; as his former chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, would later recount in the National Archives, “people who met with the president did not always report accurately or completely what was said and decided privately. Sometimes the error was honest [. . . ] More often, though, the inaccurate reports had more self-serving motives.” 

That reasoning turned out to be accurate, prescient, and Nixon’s downfall for a simple reason: it applied to his lies as well. After the burglars were caught, Nixon schemed alongside others to try to cover up their misdeeds, despite Nixon’s public statements to the contrary. The tapes helped demonstrate Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up, and the question of what the President knew and when he knew it led to his resignation a year later.

But the start of the President’s downfall came from another tape. Probably of the Scotch variety.

The July 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate wasn’t done by proper criminals; the “burglars” were political operatives who really didn’t know what they were doing. And they weren’t expecting Frank Wills. As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Wills, a 24-year-old security guard at the Watergate office building in Washington, was working the midnight shift on June 17, 1972. He discovered tape over a lock on a basement door, and thinking some worker had left it to make it easier to get in and out, he removed it,” thinking nothing of it. 

The piece of tape wasn’t there for some worker’s convenience, though. The CREEP members had placed it there to prevent the basement door from locking, allowing them access to what they otherwise shouldn’t have. When Wills removed the tape, he thwarted that plan — but only for a moment. Wills returned to the same door later on that evening and noticed that the tape had somehow returned. He knew in that moment that something nefarious was likely underway.

Wills, per the Times, phoned the authorities. When the police arrived, “they locked the doors, turned off the elevators, and started checking darkened offices.” The cops discovered the five CREEP burglars at around 2 AM, still skulking in the DNC’s offices. And they probably would have gotten away with it except for an errant piece of tape.

Wills’ heroism didn’t pay dividends; per the Times, he didn’t receive a raise for catching these malfeasors, and quit his job in protest of the lack of additional pay. He did, however, get a momentary slice of fame. In the 1976 movie about the Watergate scandal, “All the President’s Men,” Academy Award winners Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann played journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively. The role of Frank Wills was played by Frank Wills himself.

Bonus fact: When the five burglars finally came to light that evening, they were greeted by three police officers — but that may not have been immediately obvious. The three officers weren’t in their typical uniforms. As the Washingtonian reports, the trio was undercover: they were “all dressed as hippies, on the lookout for street criminals doing drug deals and the like. It was best to approach possible criminals in an unremarkable car and disheveled civilian clothing.”

From the Archives: Make Your Own X-Rays: A more legal use for Scotch tape.