Words of Watergate: Part 2

gateBy Hugh Rawson

President Richard M. Nixon and his men – and all his aides were men back in the benighted 1970s – leaned heavily on harmless-sounding, euphemistic language in order to obscure, if not conceal completely, the criminal activities that formed the Watergate scandal. Examples include caper, house cleaning, plumber, and others noted in last month’s post.

Some of Mr. Nixon’s aides could turn vivid phrases, however. The most talented of these was John D. Ehrlichman, the president’s chief domestic affairs adviser, who blossomed as a novelist after being sentenced to jail for his role in Watergate. It was Ehrlichman who suggested to John W. Dean III, the president’s counsel, that he deep-six the phone-tapping equipment that had been found in the office safe of E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a White House plumber (officially a “consultant”) implicated in the Watergate break-in. Deep-six is sailor’s slang for tossing something overboard into water at least six fathoms (thirty-six feet) deep. Dean wasn’t familiar with the expression, however. As he testified to the Senate committee that investigated Watergate:

“I asked him what he meant by ‘deep six.’ He leaned back in his chair and said: ‘You drive across the [Potomac] river at night, don’t you? Well, when you cross over the river on your way home, just toss the briefcase into the river.’” Continue reading “Words of Watergate: Part 2”

Words of Watergate

top secretBy Hugh Rawson

The fortieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal is well worth observing not only for its political results – an American president, Richard M. Nixon, was forced to resign and a number of his top aides went to jail – but for the way it enriched our political vocabulary. The scandal popularized such words and phrases as cover up, deep six, deep throat, dirty tricks, follow the money, inoperative, smoking gun, and stonewall. And it also offers lessons about the dangers of using deceptive language that remain relevant today.

The words of Watergate tended to be highly euphemistic. The president and his men tried at every step along the way to sugar coat criminal actions through the artful use of language. Thus, the incident that brought the scandal to life, the break-in on June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate  complex in Washington, D.C., was initially downplayed by Ron Ziegler, the president’s press secretary, as “a third-rate burglary attempt.” (Actually, this was the second third-rate burglary at the DNC office. The purpose of the June 17 break-in was to fix a telephone bug that had been installed there at the end of May.) Continue reading “Words of Watergate”