“Nobody drowned at Watergate” was a phrase used, especially by supporters of President Richard Nixon, to minimize the impact of the Watergate scandal and to point to scandals in the Democratic party.
On June 17, 1972, five men managed to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC. The headquarters were on the premises of the Watergate hotel. Security guards learned about the break-in and arrested the men, who were carrying thousands of dollars and surveillance equipment with them.
The arrests led to a Congressional investigation and generated tremendous public interest, especially after President Nixon’s former White House counsel, John Dean, testified that the president had known about the break-in and had helped to plan the cover-up. Nixon, meanwhile, steadfastly denied any involvement.
Nixon’s supporters argued that in fact, the press was blowing the Watergate affair out of proportion. The slogan “nobody drowned at Watergate” was printed on lapel pins and other materials. The slogan served a double purpose. First, it reminded people that nobody had been physically injured at Watergate. Second, it reminded the public of a relatively recent scandal in which somebody actually had been drowned.
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was driving home from a party on Martha’s Vineyard; 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne, a political aide, was in the car with him. Kennedy crashed his car off of the Dike Bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, and the vehicle landed upside down in Poucha Pond. Kennedy told several of the other party-goers about the crash and, with their help, he tried and failed to rescue Kopechne. Nobody alerted the police to the accident that night. Mary Jo Kopechne was left alone in the upturned car overnight; her dead body was discovered in the morning. Kennedy later said that he hadn’t contacted the authorities because he was in shock. He was given a two month (suspended) sentence for abandoning the scene of the accident.
The “nobody drowned at Watergate” buttons appeared to be pointing a finger at Ted Kennedy’s infamous crash, and the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne.
Decades later, politicians in both parties sometimes use the phrase “nobody drowned at Watergate” (or sometimes “nobody died at Watergate”) when they want to criticize their opponents supposedly enormous crimes. The idea seems to be that, if the media made a fuss over Watergate, they should make an even bigger fuss over these new crimes. John McCain, for example, was vociferous in criticizing the Obama administrations response to Benghazi. McCain said that the administration was either engaged in a cover up, or that it had operated incompetently. McCain stressed that, while nobody died at Watergate, people did in fact die in Benghazi.
Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer expressed similar views, saying:
Look, we know that there was no demonstration. It was all a fiction. The question is when Susan Rice went out, did the White House know about what she was gonna say? Did the Secretary of State know? That I think is the ultimate question — who told her to stay those fictions? And I think in the end, that’s what’s going to unravel this. The Watergate scandal was about who knew up high and when. And I’ll remind you that nobody died in Watergate.