Watergate Moments, Then and Now

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

The Watergate hotel and office complex, home of the infamous “third-rate burglary” and namesake of the political crisis during the Nixon Administration. Image: Farragutful, Wiki Commons

Watergate Moments, Then and Now

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Opinions & Commentary

The Watergate hotel and office complex, home of the infamous “third-rate burglary” and namesake of the political crisis during the Nixon Administration. Image: Farragutful, Wiki Commons

In our naive civics mythology, we want our presidents to be men and women of the highest integrity. We want them to embody the rule of law and respect for the Constitution. But these things aren’t true anymore.

Where do we go from here?

First, I cannot as a historian put Mr. Donald Trump’s indictment into context because this has never happened before in our 247-year history. That’s the context. It’s unprecedented. The classified documents case will play itself out in the federal court system. On a grave occasion like this, I don’t want to write about politics per se.

I want to write about the disintegration of America.

My concern is about the deepening divide in America. If the 2020 election was any indication, about half the country (Red America) thinks the Justice Department is out of control; that it is shameful to be woke; that global climate change is at least over-hyped and maybe a hoax; that the opposition consists of those who apologize for America, who would lock up our natural resources and confiscate our guns, and who want to move America towards socialism and perhaps even communism. And the other half (Blue America) seems to believe that the opposition consists of gun-toting Bible-thumping rednecks who are homophobic, anti-trans, openly or clandestinely racist, anti-choice—people who shout “drill, baby, drill,” and sing “God Bless the USA.”

The mutual distrust is stunning. At the most extreme, each of these tribes believes that the other one is ruining America. Each of them has a couple of favored media empires (silos) that can be counted on to spout the party line and ignore or vilify the opposition. We have reached the point where every issue that comes up—the border, Afghanistan, gender reassignment, energy policy, the debt ceiling—falls out along these simplistic lines and each tribe accuses the other of idiocy, bad faith, and sometimes treason.

The Trump indictment is a perfect example of this dangerous and depressing phenomenon. We don’t agree on the facts. We don’t agree on the process. We don’t agree on the legitimacy of the Justice Department’s actions. As Gerard Baker put it last week in the Wall Street Journal, “You have the impression that approximately half the people … regard the federal indictment of Donald Trump as the greatest affirmation of republican democracy since the surrender at Appomattox, while the other half view it as the greatest abuse of power since George III tried to levy a stamp act on his colonial subjects.”

How did this happen? And where do we go from here?

The Watergate Analogy

A June 1972 break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters led to an investigation that revealed multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration. (flickr/szmilo)

In the situation with Richard Nixon in 1974, when he surely deserved to be indicted or impeached, and was in fact named as an unindicted co-conspirator, there were several million die-hard Republicans and some Democrats who at first refused to accept the truth about President Nixon’s crimes. But a very substantial majority of the American people, including the political classes, of both parties, soon came to accept the facts in the case. When the American people heard the contents of the “smoking gun tape,” recorded on June 23, 1972, in the Oval Office, they understood that the president himself had instructed his chief of staff to initiate a coverup, to use the president’s authority to obstruct justice, to use one federal agency to call off another.

That was then.

Back then, our news was filtered through the three major networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Walter Cronkite of CBS was routinely voted the most admired man in America. Eric Sevareid and John Chancellor were the two principal political commentators in the country. Both were centrists. When in the spring of 1968 Walter Cronkite said the Vietnam War was a “stalemate” and a “quagmire,” the country largely accepted his judgment. Lyndon B. Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Six years later, when Cronkite said President Nixon’s behavior could not be squared with the U.S. Constitution or his oath of office, the country swallowed hard and began to get in line with his judgment.

There was no social media then.

Today we have hundreds of political commentators, from across a wide political spectrum, and the cable news giants make no real effort to speak to the entire nation. MSNBC and Fox (and many others) are essentially echo chambers where no attempt is made to find a national consensus on any issue.

More than 25 Nixon aides or cronies went to prison over the Watergate affair. They were jailed for perjury and for conspiracy to obstruct justice. Nixon, as we all know, was pardoned by his hand-picked successor Gerald Ford on Sept. 8, 1974. Most historians believe that that was the right thing for President Ford to do, even though it probably cost him re-election in 1976. Here was part of his rationale: “We would needlessly be diverted from meeting those challenges if we as a people were to remain sharply divided over whether to indict, bring to trial, and punish a former president, who already is condemned to suffer long and deeply in the shame and disgrace brought upon the office he held.” As he put it on his first day in office, President Ford wanted “our long national nightmare” to be over. Mr. Ford’s view was that America should look forward, not back.

I was a young man then, living in a red state, but when we saw the transcript of the June 23 conversation, recorded just six days after the essentially insignificant Watergate break-in, what Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler rightly called “a third-rate burglary,” or a “caper,” we knew that the rule of law, due process, and the ethics we expect our presidents to embody had been damaged, and that America had been degraded by Mr. Nixon and the “plumbers.” We hated to come to that conclusion—we grieved and we so hoped it was not true—but in the end that was the only conclusion we could come to. If Nixon had said, “Unfortunately it’s all true, it was juvenile and stupid, and even though we are certainly not the first campaign to engage in infantile political dirty tricks, I’m getting rid of everyone who was in the loop,” he would have survived. So far as historians can ascertain, he had not ordered the break-in.

You know the cliché. It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.

When President Nixon finally resigned, on Aug. 8, 1974, he said: “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first.”

And he left. Then he spent the remaining 20 years of his life trying to rehabilitate his public image. In many respects, he accomplished his goal by writing insightful books and position papers on America’s place in the world. Bill Clinton spoke at his funeral.

On the day of Mr. Nixon’s resignation, I was working for a small daily newspaper in southeastern North Dakota. Even though I was just a kid, I was the chief photographer of the Daily News. Two things happened that day that I never forgot. I drove out to a town about 40 miles away to interview a man about a farm policy question. I parked my car, negotiated with the dog, and knocked on the door. The man—in his 60s—opened the door. I introduced myself. He said, “I’m sorry, but this is not a day to talk about such small things. This is a terribly sad day for America. Please come back another time.”

So I got in the car and drove back to the newsroom. That evening I went to a bar in the next town and took a photograph of five or six older men sipping their beer or schnapps while they watched the resignation speech. I keep that photograph in a frame on my desk. My parents were not Nixon supporters, and I was too young really to have a useful opinion, but I felt a deep existential sadness to see that it had come to this.

That it has come to this.

Coming Apart at the Seams

In our naive civics mythology, we want our presidents to be men and women of the highest integrity. We want them to embody the rule of law and respect for the Constitution. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We want to believe that they are honest and upright. We want them to acknowledge their mistakes. We are a forgiving people. We want to believe that we all subscribe to a roughly common set of norms and values and an agreed-upon national narrative. We want to believe that although we sometimes disagree about policy, we all want America to flourish as the world’s most important constitutional republic.

But these things aren’t true anymore. We are coming apart.

The most common political tool now seems to be “whataboutism.” Instead of attending to the facts at hand—whatever they are, on the subject of the day—the partisans merely say that the other side does it too. If you live on the right all you have to say is “Hillary” or “Hunter” or “Obama” and the argument is over. If you are on the left, “Trump.” The problem with whataboutism is that it justifies one bad behavior by saying it is no worse than what the other side does—and thus the American republic spirals down one scandal at a time: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, and then the Trump presidency and its opponents.

Former President Donald Trump stops at the Versailles bakery in Little Havana after his arraignment in the Miami federal courthouse Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Pedro Portal/TNS

The difference between 1974 and 2023—just 50 years ago—is that we no longer share a common narrative of what “American” signifies. We no longer agree about who we are, how we got here, where we are headed, and what we fundamentally stand for. We no longer agree on the standards to which we must hold our elected officials. We no longer agree on the facts, or what they signify. We are at least two Americas now, and our basic tribal affiliation is stronger than our commitment to truth and justice.

All this on the eve of the 250th birthday of America. As Hamlet said, “it is not and it cannot come to good.”

We’re going to get through this, of course, but it is another blow to the idea of America, another source of cynicism and widespread disillusionment. My fear is that this episode—one of the gravest in American history—will only further the divide. What Carl Bernstein called our Cold Civil War has been heating up. It’s impossible to know where it will end but the AR-15 is becoming a political tool in American politics. It’s impossible now to believe that things will get better before they get dramatically worse.

Republished with permission from Governing Magazine, by Clay S. Jenkinson



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