Watergate 50 years later: Last guy to turn out the lights before burglars arrived recalls infamous break-in

·8 min read
The Watergate complex in Washington. D.C., has become synonymous with the 1972 break-in into Democratic National Committee headquarters that would eventually bring down U.S. President Richard Nixon. Today, it houses a hotel, offices and condominiums. (CBC News - image credit)
The Watergate complex in Washington. D.C., has become synonymous with the 1972 break-in into Democratic National Committee headquarters that would eventually bring down U.S. President Richard Nixon. Today, it houses a hotel, offices and condominiums. (CBC News - image credit)

Close to midnight on June 17, 1972, 21-year-old intern Bruce Givner turned off the lights as he exited the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C.

Today, as Americans mark the foiled burglary that would eventually bring down U.S. President Richard Nixon, Givner can definitively say: "I was the last person legally inside the offices of the Watergate the night it was broken into."

The Ohio native had stayed late inside the offices, long after everyone had cleared out, taking advantage of the DNC's flat-fee long distance plan to call up his friends, parents and ex- and current girlfriends.

"I probably started about 7 p.m., and I just talked and talked and talked," said Givner, now a 71-year-old California tax attorney. "I was talking to at least a dozen people, maybe more."

With the washrooms located in an area that would have locked him outside the office, he decided to step onto the balcony and pee in the planter because he "figured that wouldn't hurt the plants."

What Givner didn't know was that all of his actions were being surveilled by a group of would-be burglars planning to break into the DNC offices and that he was thwarting their plans, and that by doing so, he may have been changing the course of American history.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Givner is just one of the dozens and dozens of people who played some kind of role, direct or indirect, in the Watergate break-in — the most famous attempted burglary in U.S. history.

On this date 50 years ago, five men were arrested for the break-in and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

But the real drama came later, with the discovery that they were working for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP, and were hoping to find material that would help the Republican Party get Nixon re-elected to a second term.

Nixon's subsequent attempt to obstruct justice by thwarting the FBI investigation would lead to unprecedented televised political hearings, criminal convictions of the president's top aides and his eventual downfall.

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

The original -gate

A half century later, the interest in Watergate appears not to have subsided. It remains the subject of books, podcasts and entertainment, with a new series about the scandal called Gaslit starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn out earlier this year and another, The White House Plumbers, starring Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, on the way.

The suffix "gate" has since become affixed to the scandal du jour, and any new major political controversy that arises is often compared to Watergate in terms of scope or severity.

But the break-in itself that set off the chain of events is also a source of fascination, as landmarks of the famous break in still remain in some shape or form.

Illustration: CBC, Source: Google Earth
Illustration: CBC, Source: Google Earth

The Howard Johnson hotel, where former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin stood lookout for the Watergate burglars from Room 723, is no longer there. It had become a dormitory for George Washington University students but was sold to a developer and is now a mixed-use building combining apartments and retail on the ground floor.

Watergate itself is a huge spiralling complex that includes an office building, hotel and condominiums. The Watergate Hotel, where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt masterminded the break-in from Room 214, where they could look right into the DNC office, fell into disrepair. It remained vacant for a long period until it underwent a a six-year, $125 million US renovation, reopening its doors in 2016 and playing up its ties to political history.

Illustration: CBC, Source: Google Earth
Illustration: CBC, Source: Google Earth

"We really embrace that aspect. We don't shy away from it," said Ali Le, marketing manager for the Watergate Hotel.

"It's something that happened here. So in the rebuilding and rebranding, it's something that we wanted to have as part of our identity."

For example, Room 214 has been turned into the "Scandal Room," decorated to "evoke the spirit of the 70s" while including items such as binoculars, a manual typewriter and two custom "coverup" robes.

"No need to break in" is inscribed on the guest key cards, and the front desk hands out pens that say "stolen from the Watergate Hotel."

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Former DNC office now a historic site

As for the site of the break-in, the Democratic National Committee office has long since moved out. Currently, that office is occupied by Sage Publishing.

But the publishing company has also ensured that the Watergate legacy not be forgotten. One room has been named the Nixon Room and holds memorabilia from the Watergate era, including framed papers of that time denoting different aspects of the scandal.

It has a plaque that reads "Historical Site" and notes that the burglars were arrested "at this spot in the Watergate office complex."

Watergate Hotel
Watergate Hotel

Khaalid Wilson, who works in IT at Sage, said the burglars also made their way through what is now the lunch room, where round wooden tables, vending machines and microwaves have replaced file cabinets, office chairs and Democratic Party documents.

"I've been here since 2017," Wilson said. "There's always people who want to come and see the suite. Before, the floors used to be unlocked so people would come up and walk around."

June 17 was actually the second time burglars had broken into the DNC office. The first time was May 28, when a team led by Liddy broke in to plant bugs in the telephones of staffers. The aim of the second break-in was, in part, to fix some of the issues with those surveillance devices.

But those plans were being gummed up by Givner.

"[He] stayed and he stayed and he stayed," Liddy once reportedly said of the intern on ABC News. "It's a Friday night. This was some dedicated Democrat."

So, is it possible that that delay led to the burglars' arrest?

"I am 100 per cent confident that I have no idea," Givner said.

Not the A-Team

When he did leave the building, at 12:05 a.m., Givner encountered Frank Wills, the building security guard, and the two of them walked across the street to the Howard Johnson's to get some cheeseburgers and shakes.

However, when Wills returned to the building, he noticed a piece of tape covering the latch of a door during his rounds.

"At first, he thought it was something that the cleaning crew had done," said Ken Hughes, a research specialist at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate.

"And so, he took it off. And when he came back later, he found that they had retaped it, so it was kind of a ... bungle."

Mark Gollom/CBC
Mark Gollom/CBC

Willis then called the police. A team of plainclothes officers arrived and arrested the burglars: James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio R. Martinez, and Bernard L. Barker, who all had links to the CIA.

"[The burglary crew] was not the A-Team. It was the amateur team," said Paul Magallanes, who was one of the FBI agents assigned to the case.

"This particular matter came under our jurisdiction. So when that happened on Monday morning, it was chaotic."

'We're working for the same man'

Because of Magallanes's Hispanic background, he was assigned to talk to some of the burglars who had Cuban backgrounds. He said they were all polite and well dressed but provided little information. However, one of the burglars, Martínez, a CIA operative who had worked for the agency during its efforts to infiltrate Cuba, said something that caught his ear.

"He said, 'We're working for the same man,' " Magallanes recalled Martinez telling him. "I asked him what he meant by that. He said, 'Well, you know, you work for the government. I work with the government. And we're going to be taken care of by the government and by the man, the president.'

"I was shocked and amazed at what he's telling me. But he didn't say specifically what he was talking about."

(Martínez would later be pardoned by President Ronald Reagan, making him the second person, along with Nixon, to be pardoned for his role in Watergate.)

William A Smith/The Associated Press
William A Smith/The Associated Press

Magallanes would go on to interview some of the key players, including Judith Hoback Miller, the bookkeeper at CREEP.

"That was a very important interview. That really broke the case open. Then we had leads to go on that were significant."

Still, 50 years later, some mysteries remain about the break-in.

There has been no real evidence that Nixon himself was aware of the plan to break into the Watergate DNC office, and in fact, apparently didn't think it was a worthwhile target, said Hughes.

"There's no indication that Nixon specifically wanted the DNC broken into," he said.

"There has been a lot of speculation and debate over what specifically they were looking for," he said. "But they didn't really find much of use."

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