“Third-rate burglary” is a phrase which President Richard Nixon’s press secretary used to describe the Watergate break-in.
In June 1972, five men were arrested while trying to break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, in Washington DC. The men were caught in the middle of the night trying to bug the offices of the DNC. Four of the men had ties to the CIA’s anti-Castro activities in Cuba. The fifth man was active in the re-election campaign of then-president Richard Nixon.
Soon after the arrest, the Washington Post reported that the burglaries might also have ties to White House chief of staff G. Gordon Liddy. In response, Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, said that the president would not comment on a “third-rate burglary attempt.”
Ziegler also accused the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of “shabby journalism” and “character assassination.” Woodward and Bernstein reported doggedly on the links between the Nixon White House and the Watergate break-in. Eventually, Ziegler was forced to grudgingly apologize to the Post for his criticism. He famously admitted that mistakes had been made, saying:
I think we would all have to say, and I would be, I think, remiss if I did not say, that mistakes were made during this period in terms of comments that were made, perhaps. I would say that I was overenthusiastic at the time in my comments about The Post, particularly if you look at it in the context of the developments that have taken place. In thinking of it at this point in time, yes, I would apologize to The Post. . . . When we’re wrong, we’re wrong.
In January 1973, Liddy was in fact convicted of playing a key role in the June 1972 break in. A jury found Liddy guilty of conspiracy, burglary, and bugging DNC headquarters. Another member of Nixon’s re-election committee, James McCord, was also tried and convicted of the same charges.
White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler, who famously dismissed the break-in as a “third rate burglary,” became famous for his evasive use of language. In 1974, the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English even handed Ziegler its first annual “Doublespeak” award.
The prize came for this sentence, when Ziegler was discussing the secret White House tapes:
I would feel that most of the conversations that took place in those areas of the White House that did have the recording system would, in almost their entirety, be in existence, but the special prosecutor, the court, and, I think, the American people are sufficiently familiar with the recording system to know where the recording devices existed, and to know the situation in terms of the recording process, but I feel, although the process has not been undertaken yet in preparation of the material to abide by the court decision, really, what the answer to that question is.
In the same year, the Committee on Public Doublespeak also awarded a prize to former air attaché at the US embassy in Cambodia. The awards were given for their signal contributions to semantic distortion, the committee said.