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Watergate and All the President’s Men

A Lesson Plan for Secondary Educators

Created by Chris Shaw, SED 741 2003-2004



I. Topic:  The Watergate scandal which culminated in Richard Nixon’s resignation from the post of President of the United States on August 9, 1974 and Alan J. Pakula’s film, All the President’s Men depicting the Washington Post’s breaking of the story.  


II. Themes: 1) United States Presidents must be honest in order to make the democratic process work.  2) A free press is essential to the democratic process.


III. California Standards: 11th grade: 11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society in terms of: (3) the constitutional crisis originating from the Watergate scandal. 


IV. Organization and Timeline: This lesson should take a week and includes two question/discussion portions, a lecture, screening of a film, and an evaluation homework assignment. 


V. Resources: Needed for this lesson are: Television footage of Nixon’s resignation, and the film All the President’s Men,


VI. Introductory Hook


Television footage should be shown of Nixon’s resignation.  Students should be made to understand that the lesson to be taught focuses on events that lead to the resignation of an American President in 1974.  It should be explained that two no name reporters were responsible for gathering and exposing much of the evidence that contributed to Nixon’s resignation.  Students should be asked how these facts and the footage makes them feel.  They also should be asked whether they have any comments on the expected behavior of presidents and the press.  Students write down these feelings and it should be explained that opinions on these issues will be again asked for at the end of the lesson.      


VII. Lesson Content.


A. The class should be involved from the beginning of the lesson by posing a few questions. 


1. The class should first be asked if they know anything about Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon, or any other related topics. 


2.The class should also be asked if there is anything they would like to know or have wondered about regarding these topics.  References to prior class coverage of Nixon, such has the 1960 presidential election, should be made.


3. All responses should be written down where they can be seen by the class and should all be covered in the lesson.  If any discussion develops it should be encouraged to continue. 


B. Background information on Watergate and the film is necessary prior to watching All the President’s Men. 


1. Republican Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency of the United States in 1968 when he defeated his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey.  With a reelection attempt approaching in 1972, Nixon and a number of his aides began a secret campaign of slander and deceit against the Democratic Party.  This campaign was a result of paranoia on the part of Nixon administration with regard to losing the 1972 election.   


2. The most famous of these acts was the attempt to plant surveillance devices in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate Building in Washington DC.  The “burglars” involved in the break in were caught and all federal officials, including Nixon, denied and attempted to cover up any involvement.


3. While most of the country would never have implicated Nixon’s administration and party in the break in, two junior reporters for the Washington Post, one of the most read newspapers in the country at the time, went after these men. 


4. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were the two Washington Post reporters. With the help of the Washington Post’s Editor in Chief Ben Bradlee and an anonymous White House source known only as “Deep Throat” Woodward and Bernstein investigated the burglary and began the process, which was completed by the US Congress, of exposing Nixon and his associates. 


5. When all was said and done, 30 of Nixon’s closest advisors, including two former attorney generals, were convicted of crimes stemming from Watergate and other illegal activity.  Of the individuals convicted, nearly half served jail sentences.  Richard Nixon resigned following a suggestion by the US House of Representatives to impeach him on three counts.  Gerald Ford, Nixon’s Vice President, became president following Nixon’s resignation.  Ford promptly used his power of Presidential powers to pardon Nixon of all wrongdoing.  



C. Following presentation of background information, the movie should be shown. 


1.  Showing the movie will take two+ class periods.  Prior to the movie being shown the class should be introduced to the Director Alan J. Pakula, Actors Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein), and Jason Robards Jr. (Ben Bradlee).  They should also be informed that the movie was filmed in 1976. 


2. There are a number of questions that can be posed at this point.  These are not questions that should be written down during the screening, as the students should be allowed to give their full attention to movie.  However, the questions should be written on the board and briefly discussed prior to the viewing.  These questions are:


a. How did President Nixon and his associates violate the United State’s system of democracy?  Do presidents and other federal officials have a responsibility to uphold our country’s democratic values? Why?


b. Do Woodward and Bernstein do the right thing in working to expose and eventually contributing to the resignation of a US President?  Why?  Do our country’s media have any responsibility to inform the American people of the misdoings of their government officials? Why?


c. What Comparisons can be made between Nixon’s impeachment and that of Andrew Johnson in 1868.   Explain Johnson’s acquittal by one vote and how simply opposing congress can result in impeachment of a President. 


d. Should Nixon have been impeached (explain impeachment) and why?  Compare and contrast Nixon’s actions to those of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinski affair.  Which actions were more serious and why?  A brief overview of the Lewinski affair may be necessary.


e. Should a President be able to be impeached for an offense that an ordinary citizen cannot be arrested for?  


3. The movie can become very confusing because there are so many people that are investigated and interviewed and because the investigation process moves so fast at times (not to mention that Dustin Hoffman is very difficult to understand and the movie is over twenty five years old.  To keep students interested it is necessary to outline the different names and agencies involved in the movie.


4. It is important to stop the movie a few times if students look confused or begin to lose interest, because this could be a sign that they are becoming overwhelmed. 


5. Following the movie, a few moments of reflection on the movie and the posed questions should be given.  A discussion should then take place.  Students should be asked to take a stance on the questions.  There is a possibility that the class may have split opinions on one of the issues if this is the case then a mock debate could take place.  Students should always be encouraged to discuss how such issues and questions apply to them personally.  Reference to the original reaction sheets should be made at this point. 


VIII. Conclusion:


The Watergate affair and the film, All the President’s Men express in clear terms the very real possibility of high ranking public officials involving themselves in extremely immoral activity.  Sometimes this activity can even violate the tenants our nation was founded on.  This event teaches us that we can never blindly assume that our federal government is incapable of corruption.  The effects of such behavior are powerfully damaging to a nation and discussion of them is important. 


The responsibility that our nation’s press has to inform its readers, viewers, and listeners of such activity is of paramount importance.  They are the effective go-between for the government and the people of a nation.  The Watergate affair expresses this point very clearly.  If the American people did not find out about such an event, then the will of the people with regard to the election of a president would be compromised.  These are fascist actions.


IX. Evaluation


As assessment for this lesson, students should discuss whether they feel that President George W. Bush has been accountable to the will of the people since being elected?  Was his election questionable with regard to our nation’s Democratic Values?  Has he been honest to the American people, and does this affect our democratic process.  What do you think about the way the press has covered the major events of Bush’s term as President (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq)?  Has the press provided us with all the information we deserve?  Compare Nixon’s, Woodward’s, and Bernstein’s actions to those of Bush and today’s press.  Why is it important to have a free press within a democratic system?  How, if at all, have your views on these issues changed since the beginning of the unit, and why? 





Material © 2003 Chris Shaw, All Rights Reserved.

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