Near midnight on June 17, 1972, 21-year-old intern Bruce Givner turned off the lights as he left the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters offices in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
Today, as Americans celebrate the botched robbery that would eventually topple US President Richard Nixon, Givner can definitely say: “I was the last person legally inside the Watergate offices the night they entered.”
The Ohio native had stayed late inside the office, long after everyone else had left, taking advantage of the DNC’s flat-rate long-distance plan to call friends, parents, and current and ex-girlfriends.
“I probably started around 7 p.m., and I 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 toilets located in an area that would have locked him out of the office, he decided to go out on the balcony and urinate in the pot because “he thought that wouldn’t harm the plants.”
What Givner didn’t know was that all of his actions were being watched by a group of would-be thieves planning to break into the DNC offices and that he was foiling their plans and that by doing so, he may have been changing the course of American history. .
Givner is just one of dozens and dozens of people who played some sort of role, direct or indirect, in the Watergate break-in, the most famous break-in attempt in US history.
On this date 50 years ago, five men were arrested for trespassing and charged with attempted robbery and attempted wiretapping 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, hoping to find material that would help the GOP 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.
the original door
Half a century later, interest in Watergate seems unabated. It continues to be the subject of books, podcasts and entertainment, with a new series about the scandal called gas light starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn earlier this year and another, The White House Plumbersstarring Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, on the way.
Since then, the suffix “gate” has been added to the scandal of the day, and any major new 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 the landmarks of the famous break-in still remain in some form.
The Howard Johnson Hotel, where former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin kept watch on the Watergate burglars from room 723, is no longer there. It had been converted into a dormitory for George Washington University students, but was sold to a developer and is now a mixed-use building combining ground-floor apartments and retail.
Watergate itself is a huge spiral complex that includes an office building, a hotel, and condominiums. The Watergate Hotel, where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt planned the break-in of Room 214, where they could look directly into the DNC office, fell into disrepair. It sat vacant for a long period until it underwent a six-year, $125 million renovation, reopening in 2016 and highlighting its ties to political history.
“We really embraced that aspect. We weren’t scared,” said Ali Le, marketing manager for the Watergate Hotel.
“It’s something that happened here. So in the rebuild and rebranding, it’s something that we wanted to have as part of our identity.”
For example, Room 214 has become the “Scandal Room,” decorated to “evoke the spirit of the ’70s” and includes items such as binoculars, a manual typewriter, and two custom “cover-up” robes.
“No need to enter” is inscribed on guest key cards, and the front desk hands out pens that say “stolen from the Watergate Hotel.”
The former DNC office is now a historic site
As for the raid site, the Democratic National Committee office moved long ago. Currently, that office is occupied by Sage Publishing.
But the publisher has also made sure that the legacy of Watergate is not forgotten. One of the rooms has been named the Nixon Room and contains memorabilia from the Watergate era, including framed papers from that time denoting different aspects of the scandal.
It has a plaque that says “Historic Site” and notes that the thieves were arrested “at this location in the Watergate office complex.”
Khaalid Wilson, who works in IT at Sage, said the thieves also made their way through what is now the dining room, where round wooden tables, vending machines and microwaves have replaced filing cabinets, Democratic Party office and documents.
“I’ve been here since 2017,” Wilson said. “There are always people who want to come and see the suite. Before, the floors used to be open for people to go up and walk around.”
June 17 was actually the second time the thieves broke into the DNC office. The first time was on May 28, when a team led by Liddy broke in to bug employees’ phones. The purpose of the second break-in was, in part, to fix some of the problems with those surveillance devices.
But Givner was ruining those plans.
“[He] he stayed and stayed and stayed,” Liddy once said of the intern on ABC News. “It’s a Friday night. This was a dedicated Democrat.”
So is it possible that this delay led to the thieves’ arrest?
“I’m 100 percent sure I have no idea,” Givner said.
It’s not the A-team
When he left the building at 12:05 am, Givner ran into Frank Wills, the building’s security guard, and the two walked across the street to Howard Johnson’s for cheeseburgers and shakes.
However, when Wills returned to the building, he noticed a piece of tape covering a door latch during his rounds.
“At first, he thought it was something the cleanup crew had done.” said Ken Hughes, a research specialist at the University of Virginia Miller Center and author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate.
“So, he took it off. And when he came back later, he found that it had been glued back on, so it was kind of… botched.”
Willis then called the police. A team of plainclothes officers arrived and arrested the thieves: James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio González, Eugenio R. Martinez and Bernard L. Barker, who had ties to the CIA.
“[The burglary crew] It wasn’t 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 was under our jurisdiction. So when that happened on Monday morning, it was chaotic.”
‘We work for the same man’
Due to Magallanes’s Hispanic background, he was assigned to talk to some of the robbers who had a Cuban background. He said they were all polite and well dressed, but provided little information. However, one of the thieves, Martinez, a CIA agent who had worked for the agency during its efforts to infiltrate Cuba, said something that caught his attention.
“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 for the government. And we’re going to be taken care of by the government and by the man, the president.’
“I was surprised and shocked by what he told me. But he didn’t say specifically what he was talking about.”
(Martinez would later be pardoned by President Ronald Reagan, making him the second person, along with Nixon, to be pardoned for his role in Watergate.)
Magallanes would go on to interview some of the key players, including Judith Hoback Miller, accountant for CREEP.
“That was a very important interview. That really opened up the case. 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 DNC’s Watergate office and, in fact, he apparently didn’t think it was a worthwhile target, Hughes said.
“There is no indication that Nixon specifically wanted to get into the DNC,” he said.
“There has been a lot of speculation and debate about what specifically they were looking for,” he said. “But they didn’t really find much use.”