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White House ScandalsWhite-House-Scandals

  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The events referred to as Watergate lead to major repercussions and much investigation.
2. Watergate can be compared and contrasted to other scandals associated with the White House.


For this lesson, you will need:
Reference materials (news stories and analyses) published at the time of the scandals under study and materials published subsequently
Index cards for note taking


1. After your class has studied Watergate, initiate a discussion of other White House scandals. Students or you should bring up at least the following four: Teapot Dome, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and Lewinsky. Regardless of how much or how little students seem to know initially about the four other scandals, explain that you expect each of them to become fully informed about one. Explain that you also expect each student to write a detailed and fully documented comparison-and-contrast report on Watergate and one other White House scandal.
2. Review as necessary the respective meanings of comparison and contrast. The first refers to finding similarities between two people, objects, or concepts; the second refers to finding differences between two people, objects, or concepts.
3. As with any comparison-and-contrast report, remind students that writers must identify features or categories according to which their two entities can be legitimately compared and contrasted. That is, the writer cannot simply say that Watergate was similar to one of the other scandals or was different from one of the other scandals; the writer cannot simply say that one scandal was worse than or not as bad as the other scandal. Rather, the writer must detail how or in what way the two events were similar or different.
4. Also, as necessary, direct students to sources that will help them keep detailed and accurate bibliographic records of each source. They can find instructions in Modern Language Association bibliographic style atmla.
5. If students seem to have difficulty in determining along which lines Watergate and one other scandal should be compared and contrasted, suggest the following:
  • Nature of the alleged illegal or improper act(s)
  • White House person(s) who committed illegal or improper act(s)
  • President's reaction to accusation of illegal or improper act(s)
  • Media coverage of the scandal
  • Determination of whether the term illegal actually applies to the act(s)
  • Impact of scandal on prestige of presidency
  • Short-term outcome of the scandal
  • Long-term outcome of the scandal
6. Having conducted research, taken notes, and chosen the features or categories by which to compare and contrast Watergate and another scandal, students should use one of the following prewriting graphic organizers for ordering their thoughts:
  • Comparison-contrast chart with three columns, the first headed "Feature," the second headed "Watergate scandal," and the third headed with the name of the other scandal
  • Venn diagram with similarities between the two events noted in the overlapping sections, particularities of Watergate listed in the left section, and particularities of the other scandal noted in the right section
7. Students should write their first drafts, following their graphic organizers and noting each point at which they must cite a given source. Remind students that they should proceed in one of two ways: (1) mentioning a feature and covering each of the two scandals in terms of that feature before moving on to another feature; (2) writing about all the similarities first and then writing about all the differences between the two scandals. Determine if you want students to engage in peer editing or if you will be the sole reader of the reports.
8. Students should hand in their reports to you after revising, editing, and proofreading their work.

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Have students work in small groups to prepare comparison-contrast charts or Venn diagrams to illustrate how Watergate stacks up against another White House scandal, but do not assign preparation of written reports.

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Discussion Questions

1. Should the president have the right to more power and/or authority in a time of war or domestic crisis? Explain your answer.
2. Why did President Nixon want to use various government agencies to spy on opposition groups and individuals? Was he right or wrong for doing so? Explain your answer.
3. President Nixon said "When the President does it that means it is not illegal." Discuss whether there should be a time when an action or decision by the president, otherwise illegal, would be legal?
4. Did President Nixon know about the surveillance plan that took place at the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Complex? Did he approve it? Describe the reasoning behind the decision to conduct surveillance.
5. Is political intelligence an acceptable way to operate a political campaign? Describe examples of the use of political intelligence in today's political campaigns.
6. How did the Watergate scandal impact the public trust in the president? our political system? politicians in general?

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You can evaluate students' written reports using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: provides clear thesis statement and topic sentences that are supported; identifies and provides details about similarities and differences; contains error-free grammar, usage, and mechanics
Two points: lacks clear thesis statement and topic sentences; identifies and provides details about similarities and differences; contains some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
One point: lacks clear thesis statement and topic sentences; does not identify and provide details about similarities and differences; contains many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining the number of similarities and differences the report should include.

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All in the Family
Create a cast-of-characters tree, similar in style to a family tree. Identify by title and name the cabinet members and the various advisers, aides, and appointees in other White House jobs during the Nixon administration. Starting with President Richard Nixon at the top, be prepared to explain the role each man or woman played in the Watergate story.

Picture (Im)perfect
Pretend you are a political cartoonist during the time of the Watergate scandal. Create a one- or two-panel cartoon that addresses one of the issues or elements of the story.

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Suggested Readings

"Blame Today's Cynicism on Watergate"
Jack W. Germond, National Journal, August 13, 1994
In this 20-year retrospective editorial on the impact of Watergate, the author concludes that today's overwhelming public cynicism about and distrust of government can be traced directly back to Nixon's resignation.

"All the President's Women"
Elizabeth Kaye, George, December 1995
Do the consequences of immoral acts affect only those who commit them? No, concludes Kaye in her report of the impact of the various Watergate players on the lives of their wives and daughters.

"The Story So Far"
J. Anthony Lukas, New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1996
Here is a reprint of the New York Times magazine article of July 22, 1973, originally published less than one month before Nixon's resignation (August 8, 1974), which covers the Watergate scandal and the pending end of the Nixon presidency in the language and mood of the time.

Impeaching the President
Isobel V. Morin, Millbrook Press, 1996
Written for young adults, this work explains the legalities of presidential impeachment as specified by the Constitution and as practiced in its very few applications in U.S. history.

"He Was a Crook"
Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994
Thompson demonstrates his individual brand of irreverent journalism in this scathing critique of Nixon and the disgrace that he brought to the office of the president.

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Quick Facts: Richard M. Nixon
A brief and factual summary of Nixon's life. It also lists all the cabinet members who served during his administration.

The Presidents: Richard M. Nixon
This is the official White House biography of Nixon, with links to information about the First Lady, Pat Nixon, and the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.

The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace
One of nine presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. The White House materials of President and Mrs. Nixon and their staffs form the core of the library's resources.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    impeachment
Definition: The process of charging a public official with misconduct in office.
Context: Two years and two months before he resigned to escape impeachment, his undoing began here in the building called the Watergate.

speaker    plumbers
Definition: A term, used as a metaphor, to compare the actions of political officials to those who maintain piping, fittings, and fixtures involved in the distribution and use of water in a building.
Context: They called us Plumbers because we are there to stop the leaks at the White House.

speaker    political intelligence
Definition: Information concerning a political figure obtained (among other ways) by surveillance.
Context: They called it political intelligence.

speaker    gemstone
Definition: A codename used to describe illegal activities to harass democrats, presented by Gordon Liddy.
Context: In John Mitchell's office in the Justice Department, the temple of law enforcement, Liddy presented his illegal plan, codenamed Gemstone.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government.
Understands how constitutions, in the past as well as in the present, have been disregarded or used to promote the interests of a particular group, class, faction or government (e.g., slavery, exclusion of women from the body politic, prohibition of competing political parties).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society.
Understands how various provisions of the Constitution and principles of the constitutional system help to insure an effective government that will not exceed its limits.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society.
Understands how the design of the institution of government and the federal system works to channel and limit governmental power in order to serve the purposes of America's constitutional government.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national or state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.
Understands how specific features and the overall design of the Constitution results in tensions among the three branches (e.g., the power of the purse, the power of impeachment, advice and consent, veto power, judicial review), and comprehends the argument that the tensions resulting from separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial review tend to slow down the process of making and enforcing laws, thus insuring better outcomes.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political and economic rights.
Knows examples of situations where personal, political or economic rights are in conflict.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: history
Understands the Cold War and Korean and Vietnam conflicts in domestic and international politics.
Understands the social issues that resulted from United States involvement in the Vietnam War (e.g., why the Vietnam War contributed to a generational conflict and concomitant lack of respect for traditional authority figures, the impact of class and race on wartime mobilization).

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Gretchen C. Surber, history teacher, Woodbridge Senior High School, Woodbridge, Virginia.

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