Sunday, June 17, 2012

Forty Years Since the Watergate Break-in

"The absurdity of the idea still appalls in retrospect — the idea that there were secrets of value to anyone in the brawling, boisterous, open Democratic Party, whose appeal to the American people for so many generations had come from its air of humanity, its common vulgarity. The national Democratic Party is not a conspiracy; it is a continuing commotion, baffling to all logical, managerial–minded men. But the buggers and their superiors were insisting on penetrating what they thought must be a conspiracy. ... The conspiratorial theory of history was about to destroy its true believers."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

Even after 40 years, the burglary of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington defies logic and understanding, just as it did at the time.

No one really knew what to make of it in 1972. By Election Day, not quite five months after the break–in, much of the country had never heard of the word Watergate. My sense is that relatively few Americans have much better understanding of it today.

And, to be fair, it was — and remains — a far–reaching, complex scandal. Some people have been studying it for 40 years, and there are still things about it that they are learning. There are still layers to be peeled away.

Of course, at the time, no one realized that the burglary was merely scratching the tip of the iceberg. The coverup had little to do with the break–in, as Robert Redford summarized in his portrayal of Bob Woodward in the Hollywood version of "All the President's Men". It was intended to keep all the other illegal activities of the president's men secret.

The coverup, which is probably seen by most as Richard Nixon's most grievous offense, had little to do with the actual break–in that occurred 40 years ago today. It was mostly about continuing to conceal all the other, more serious things that had been going on in the Nixon White House.

And, as most such conspiracies do, that one failed to meet its objective.

But, on this day in 1972, no one knew where the road would lead when Woodward, a young reporter for the Washington Post, took the first tentative steps that eventually led America to its first presidential resignation.

Initially, the break–in wasn't considered a priority for the political writers, all of whom were busy on election–related stories. The assignment fell to Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Woodstein, as the pair became known, built the story into the most compelling domestic political story of my life. When they had done that, other newspapers began picking up their articles from the news wire, and the investigation began to gain momentum. But, in the early days, few newspapers were printing them.

The story was just too preposterous. All of Nixon's potential rivals were imploding, and it was coming down to the weakest candidate in the field, George McGovern, to carry the banner for the Democrats in the fall.

There was no obvious reason for Nixon and the Republicans to sabotage the Democrats. The Democrats appeared to be doing a dandy job of sabotaging themselves.

(To put it in proper perspective, imagine if Barack Obama's Republican opponent this year had turned out to be someone with extremely limited national appeal, even among his/her fellow Republicans — a Newt Gingrich, perhaps, or a Pat Buchanan. Even if the White House had done nothing to engineer such a nomination, it would probably seem to most observers that the president had the election locked up.)

But, as more became known about the break–in and the reasons for it, the national perception changed dramatically.

Today, Woodward and Bernstein have concluded that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that emerged in the last four decades, the coverup was not worse than the original crime.

The Nixon White House, Bernstein said, "became, to a remarkable extent, a criminal enterprise." The coverup was business as usual.

Woodward concurred. For Nixon, he said, the presidency was about retribution, and he had launched five wars for that reason: "The first against the antiwar movement, the second against the press, the third against the Democrats who threatened to take over the White House from him and deny him a second term.

"And then the fourth when there was the Watergate burglary, the coverup, the obstruction of justice. And then interestingly enough, Nixon never stopped the fifth war, which is against history, to say 'Oh, no, it really is not what it shows on the tapes and all the testimony and evidence.' "

In a damning indictment of modern journalism students, Dan Zak wrote in the Washington Post in April that Woodward and Bernstein are skeptical that aspiring journalists could uncover something like Watergate today.

A big part of the problem is their misplaced faith in the internet, according to Woodward, who was asked to read papers by journalism students at Yale on investigating a Watergate in the digital age and then speak to the students via speakerphone.

Woodward said he "came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet and you'd go to 'Nixon's secret fund' and it would be there.' "

Woodward tried to explain to the students how naive that is.

But that is a long and, in many ways, separate discussion that would all but surely distract us from the subject at hand if we dwelt on it too long.

The Nixonian White House was adept at legal double talk, which prolonged the investigation in the 1970s. Just about everyone was educated in the law, political science or advertising.

If a Richard Nixon occupied the Oval Office in 2012 and was involved in similar activities, my guess is he still would surround himself with people with those backgrounds, but he also would include in his inner circle people with expertise in computers.

Nixon had a truly adversarial relationship with the press, and modern media goes well beyond the traditional print media. It includes things that were still evolving in Nixon's day (television) and things that were not yet conceived (the internet, which, by extension, includes things like blogs).

The actual Nixon was concerned almost exclusively with the print media. His hypothetical 21st century equivalent would have had far more to worry about.

Even Nixon's critics would have acknowledged, if asked, in 1972 that he was an intelligent man — his greatest flaw, most people have agreed, was his deep insecurity — and he would have been smart enough to surround himself with experts in the dominant news delivery system of the time.

My take on it is this: The Watergate scandal that began 40 years ago today was, ultimately, a triumph both for the fundamentals of good, solid journalism in its role as public watchdog and for the relatively smooth operation of the American system.

It all worked pretty much as the Founding Fathers intended.

Read the book Woodward and Bernstein wrote about their investigation — "All the President's Men." Or watch the movie that was based on it.

You won't read about or see journalists as rock stars. It could hardly have been less glamorous. Woodward and Bernstein embarked on a long, arduous road in which doors were slammed in their faces, and they must have often felt as if they were at the end of a long branch and their colleagues in journalism were furiously sawing away.

Their survival was remarkable, and their work deserves to be remembered on this day.

Personally, though, I will settle for a time when every scandal that comes along does not have the suffix "–gate" added to it.

That has led to some pretty clever — and awkward — phrasings over the years.

For example, when Ronald Reagan's policy of selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and to raise funds to support the Nicaraguan Contras was publicly revealed, I saw/heard it referred to, alternately, as Irangate or Contragate.

And when Bill Clinton's relationship with a White House intern was revealed, it was referred to by some as Zippergate.

Watergate was an important event in this nation's history — it helped to establish limits on presidential power — but it was not this nation's first presidential scandal, nor was it the last.

Before Watergate, I was a young boy, but I have no memory of any public scandal being called whatever–dome, after the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding years. Perhaps there were "–domes" in the half century between Teapot Dome and Watergate, but, if there were, they have all receded into the long shadows of ancient history.

Each scandal is different and deserves to be remembered (or forgotten) on its own merits.

When future scandals are no longer referred to as a gate, I suppose it will be a signal that our culture has grown and matured.

No comments: