The early hours of Saturday will mark 45 years since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. The arrest of five burglars on June 17, 1972, eventually grew into a scandal that would force President Richard Nixon to resign in August 1974.
The first people to find out about the break-in were John and Nancy Stewart of Knoxville. More accurately, the first person was John Stewart's secretary.
"It was 2:30 in the morning and my wife Nancy and I were sound asleep. The phone rings. It was my secretary from work saying she had been called by the Metropolitan Police in Washington and five burglars had been apprehended in my office in the Watergate office building. I was the director of communications for the Democratic National Committee," said Stewart. "When you get a call like that in the middle of the night, your first thought is something terrible has happened. Something terrible did happen, but we didn't realize how serious it was at the time."
The police wanted Stewart to go downtown and file a written complaint so the burglars could be held until a formal arraignment could take place in the morning. Stewart said he never dreamed this was the start of the largest political scandal in American history. His focus was on getting back to his dreams and slumbers.
"I didn't want to go down at that hour. I wanted to go back to sleep. I called our deputy chairman and got him to go downtown," said Stewart. "We never could get back to sleep. He would call me at 20 minute intervals giving me updates. We had no idea what it was. None of it made a bit of sense. Why would someone want to break into our office?"
When it was revealed the men who broke in were politically connected and were tapping office phones, Stewart remembered a strange incident a few months earlier with a mysterious character who sought employment with a warning of a politically-motivated bugging.
"There was this British fellow named A.J. Woolston-Smith. He had a mustache and was wearing a trench coat. He looked like he was in central casting for spies. He told me that there was going to be a break-in, the Republicans were going to install listening devices, and wanted us to hire him. This was in March 1972. His plan was for us to hire him so he could monitor when the break-in happened, let them put the bug in, and then use the bug to feed false information. Then the Republicans would run around following these false leads," said Stewart. "We never hired him because the whole thing seemed ridiculous, at the time."
Stewart told the FBI about his encounter with Woolston-Smith. That documentation led Stewart to be subpoenaed by the Senate's Watergate Select Committee. Republican counsel Fred Thompson, who would go on to be Tennessee's U.S. Senator and a Hollywood actor, concocted a theory that democrats worked with Woolston-Smith to entrap the five men arrested for breaking into the DNC offices.
"It was ridiculous, but I don't blame Thompson for going there. He was doing his job as an attorney. He and the Republicans quickly dropped that theory because it became clear that was not what happened," said Stewart.
With wire-tapping at the offices and a trail that led all the way to the Oval Office, Thompson is credited with asking if Richard Nixon happened to record any conversations. That led to the revelation the president had his own secret recording system.
Thompson worked in the office of Tennessee's U.S. Senator Howard Baker, who asked one of the most famous questions of the entire scandal. Baker asked, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
The recordings by Nixon and the missing portions of the tapes revealed an attempt by the president to cover his tracks. It forced Nixon to resign before an inevitable impeachment.
"It's the whole problem with cover up. That was Nixon's problem. He tried to cover it up," said Stewart. "The main thing I take away from Watergate is the unsuitability of Richard Nixon to be president of the United States."
Stewart continued working for the DNC for another couple of years. He and his family moved to Tennessee in the late 1970s when he was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Stewart has remained active in politics. His son, Mike Stewart, lives in Nashville where he is a prominent Democratic member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Stewart and his family never lost faith in politics, but he knows Watergate cast a cynical shadow on the political system. He also believes the scandal deepened partisanship and a political cultural divide in the United States.
"People used to trust the government much more before Watergate. It was something people thought they could get involved with and help. And during Watergate, there were people like Howard Baker who held the president elected from his party accountable. Howard Baker was a fine public servant and a moderate Republican who would be very uncomfortable with today's [political climate]."
There are some questions that will never be answered from Watergate. One of the largest is what was information was on the missing portion of President Nixon's audio recordings. For Stewart, he still cannot stop wondering about the involvement of a British man who was a former member of the police force in Palestine
"Where did A.J. Woolston-Smith come from? What was he doing? Why was he there? I have never been able to get a coherent understanding, nor has anybody as far as I know.
After 45 years, the other legacy of the break-in at Stewart's office is the suffix "-gate" is added to nearly any word to denote a scandal. For Stewart, the various "gates" are a reminder of the night he just wanted to go back to sleep.
"Gate is applied to all types of things. I think of that 2:30 a.m. phone call. That's what I think of," smiled Stewart.
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