Watergate at 50: Hold the Champagne

I want to say a word about Watergate, a word that became synonymous with scandal 50 years ago.

I spent the entire two years between September 1972 and August 1974 covering Watergate for The Washington Post—the run-up to the Watergate break-in trial, the trial, the Senate Watergate hearings and the impeachment proceedings against Richard M. Nixon. I read all the many versions of the White House transcripts. I heard many of the actual recordings during the coverup trial of five defendants in December 1974. I was in the courtroom when the verdict was rendered in the trial of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Wells Parkinson.

The outcome of the Watergate scandal was a vindication of the reporting that The Washington Post and other media did over two and a half years. And it was celebrated as a victory of sorts—a triumph of democracy and proof that “the system” worked.

The system did work because major institutions of our democracy—the press, the judiciary and the Congress—did their jobs and functioned as they were intended to do.

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the event that touched off what was then considered the biggest political scandal of the 20th century, might have been a time for celebration. There was some of that, but the celebration was properly subdued because these times are significantly different from those.

In 1972 and the years that followed, America was united in basic ways. The Vietnam War had caused serious divisions, but on the question of the rule of law, fair play and a commitment to facts and the truth, the consensus was solid.

We can’t say that today.

The media have done their jobs over the past six years, but the jobs they have done have been different. Some of the media have tried to report facts; other media have either ignored facts, distorted them or simply fabricated them.

The judiciary has more or less held firm, but now a question arises about the current Supreme Court which is badly polarized and apparently politicized. In August 1974 the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 against President Nixon on the question of executive privilege. Even his appointees voted against him. We can’t be sure, under similar circumstances, that this Court would have been or will be as impartial.

Democrats and Republicans alike voted in the House to impeach Richard Nixon, and a bipartisan super majority likely would have convicted him in the Senate. We have seen how impeachment fared in the House and Senate in 2021.

The essential difference between those days and these is that a bipartisan consensus no longer exists on what political behavior is outside the bounds of our democracy. In those days a core of officeholders felt that burglary, obstruction of justice, malicious anonymous attacks on opposing politicians and more were outside acceptable limits. Not now.

A large segment of the American public has lost its sense of moral outrage. The invention of the Internet has been a petri dish for conspiracy theories.

More importantly, perhaps, either because the American public has become jaded or indifferent, large segments of our population think it’s all right to do any number of things, legal or not. In the words of Vince Lombardi, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. That suggests not just a political change, but a cultural change, which is visible in so many spheres of American life—an eruption of machismo and posturing, from the elevation of football rather than baseball as the most popular American spectator sport to the coarsening of language and behavior on television and motion pictures.

Watergate, rather than being a watershed moment, may have been the beginning of a new trend.  Politics reflected the cultural change. Newt Gingrich came to Congress in 1979, and that was the genesis of a new kind of opposition: combative, less civil, bare knuckled. Decency, civility, comity no longer command respect and restraint in the halls of Congress and obviously not in public.

However tempting it might be to reflect on Watergate as the triumph of American democracy over a would-be tyrant, in the present context the celebration seems ironic. The last time around most of us were operating from the same fundamental beliefs of constitutional principles, morality and adherence to fact and the truth. We can’t say the same for the present. A majority may still be there for all those things, but a significant minority has stopped adhering to one, several or all those elements. The Constitution is invoked as a kind of talisman or juju without any knowledge of its actual content. The right to vote is under attack by legislation and by would-be office-holders intent on determining the outcome by rigging the system, all the while claiming that the system is already rigged.

When push came to shove, Richard Nixon obeyed the law. We can’t be sure, in fact we can doubt whether a demagogic President would do the same.

1 Comment

  1. Paul D. on October 6, 2023 at 8:08 am

    Great piece, Larry. And as I recall, it was quite uncertain until nearly the last moment whether Nixon would actually resign. His last night in office was reportedly spent on the Presidential yacht Sequoia where he sat alone at the piano with a bottle of 20 year old Scotch and played God Bless America. Almost sounds like the ending for a Shakespearean tragedy as the curtain falls.

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