Watergate: Behind The Scenes

Dan Rather Reporters Notebook Nixon

As Dan Rather prepares to end his 24-year tenure as anchor of CBS Evening News, he looks back at some of the stories he reported through the years.

On Aug. 9, 1974, the world witnessed an unforgettable image of Richard M. Nixon resigning amid the shame and scandal of Watergate. With a stiff-armed wave, he bid farewell to a nation.

The unraveling was triggered two years earlier by the infamous break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex. Five men tied to Nixon's re-election committee were arrested.

The White House, skilled at controlling the media, brushed it off as a "third-rate burglary."

As CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reported, the forgeries were ordered in 1971 by Charles W. Colson.

As former special counsel to Nixon, Colson was part of the White House protective armor. Known as the "hatchet man" of the Nixon administration, he conjured up his own share of dirty tricks.

"There was a siege mentality clearly," he says today. "We surrounded the wagons and got in the center and were very protective and very defensive."

Rather and Colson both saw Watergate play out from different points, with Colson being Nixon's right-hand man and Rather as White House correspondent for CBS News.

"I know for example, you called my bosses trying to get me and CBS News to back off," Rather tells Colson. "How was the press perceived at the White House then?"

"Well, I would say, you, Dan, and CBS generally, of course, Woodward and Bernstein and Seymour Hersh of the New York Times were probably the most aggressive people involved in the Watergate investigation," says Colson.

In October 1973 Rather asked Nixon: "Mr. President, I wonder if you could share with us your thoughts. Tell us what goes through your mind when you hear people who love this country and people who believe in you, say reluctantly that perhaps you should resign or be impeached."

Nixon responded by saying, "Well, I'm glad we don't take the vote of this room, let me say."

"And so we looked upon you as the enemy," says Colson. "You were the forces trying to bring us down.

"Eventually you succeeded, and, ah, I did call your bosses and try to put pressure on."

Nixon had no intention of handing over the tapes.

Despite Nixon's animosity towards the press, there was no backing down.

"I am not a crook," he proclaimed.

The "Watergate" scandal had become a national obsession. Few missed the Senate Watergate hearings and the testimony of John Dean, former counsel to the president, who claimed Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in and helped cover it up.

"Believe me, dragging out Watergate drags down America,'' said Nixon.

An unrelenting press exposed a parade of top officials and their secret acts that included wire-tapping, political sabotage, slush funds and perjury. Back then, Colson tried to save himself.

On May 28, 1973, Colson said: "I had no knowledge or involvement in the Watergate, in any way shape or form."

In 1974, he spent seven months in prison for obstruction of justice. Just before he went to prison, he became a born-again Christian. And he has remained one.

"I began to see the world from the underside of life, not from the top," says Colson. "I know what it's like to be powerless, and so I've taken up what's been God's call on my life to speak for the powerless and the defenseless."

Since 1976, as founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, Colson has ministered to thousands of prison inmates.

"I can look back on the wreckage of my former life and see that God redeemed it for something really important that is helping other people," he says.

Asked if Nixon ever considered coming full with the American people by admitting that wrongs had been done and that he'd been responsible, Colson says: "Yes Dan. I think there were times when he knew if he had gone forward and admitted it all, it would have saved his presidency. I don't think he couldn't quite bring himself to do that."

In the end, says Rather, those who lost faith in our politicians because of Watergate also found new reason to believe in our constitution. The system of checks and balances, put to its greatest test, worked.