Every political scandal gets compared to Watergate. Newt Gingrich tweeted in 2012: “No one died at Watergate! The Obama lies about Benghazi and Biden's deliberate lies Thursday night should be a bigger scandal than Nixon”. Senator Jim Imhofe (OK) pledged, “I will say this to my dying day, I know people don’t realize it now, but that's going to go down in history as the greatest cover-up.” He hasn’t died yet, but he isn’t making that overblown claim any more. Rep. Steve King (Iowa) went over the top: “if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is”. King shows what Republicans really want to do: erase the stain of their two most significant political scandals.
Even the suicide of Clinton staffer Vince Foster was compared to Watergate. But no political scandal since then can compare with a President authorizing burglaries by White House staff in order to win re-election, then lying about his administration’s cover-up. Nobody died. But Watergate killed the political innocence of many Americans.
Watergate changed me. I was living in Maryland, just over the border from Washington, from 1971 to 1973. My daily paper was the Washington Post. What happened in Congress and the White House was local news.
But the destruction of my faith in American government began even before Watergate. In June 1971, the New York Times began to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s own history of our involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst who had worked on this history, photocopied thousands of pages and gave them to a reporter for the Times. After three articles, the Nixon administration got a restraining order against publication, but the Supreme Court ruled within weeks that publication was justified. Soon the Times, the Washington Post and other papers published documents showing that every President since Truman had misled the American public about Vietnam.
As the deep bipartisan dishonesty of our government began to sink in, another scandal began. Nixon had Ellsberg indicted for espionage, but the White House also created a secret investigation team which burglarized the office of his psychiatrist, trying to discredit Ellsberg. This team, who came to be called the Plumbers, went to work for Nixon’s re-election campaign. Their burglaries of the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex in May and June 1972 were only one piece of the extensive illegal operations coordinated out of Nixon’s White House: bugging of political opponents’ offices, use of the FBI, CIA and IRS to harass activist groups, and then a massive cover-up by Nixon and his aides.
The Plumbers were caught at Watergate in June, and from then on, nearly every day brought a new revelation about the corruption at the center of our government. Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, aided by secret revelations of “Deep Throat”, who turned out to be deputy director of the FBI William Mark Felt, gradually uncovered the lies and illegal activities coordinated from the White House and carried out by the leaders of national law enforcement, Attorney General John Mitchell and the FBI. Nixon denied and denied, but his taping system in the Oval Office proved that he was a criminal, trying to subvert our political system.
My attitude toward the government has never been the same. The mistrust of government which is such a prominent feature today began with Watergate. Surveys about public trust in government show high levels through the mid-1960s, then a catastrophic drop during the 1970s, from about three-quarters of the population trusting our government to only one quarter in 1980. Since then, consistently less than half of Americans have trusted our government, with this difference: Democrats and Independents have oscillated mildly from administration to administration, while Republican trust has gone up over 50% under Republican presidents, and dropped under 20% under Democratic presidents.
Even after Ronald Reagan admitted that his administration had sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund rebels in Nicaragua, both of which were explicitly prohibited by law, Republicans maintained their level of trust in government. Republican mistrust of Obama is a continuation of their attitude of only trusting Republican government.
Those high levels of Republican distrust for all recent Democratic presidents, Carter, Clinton and Obama, are behind the occasionally hysterical outbursts of Republican fury, leading them to spend millions of dollars on Congressional investigations of every problem every Democratic president encounters. So-called Filegate and Travelgate spawned Congressional committee investigations and occupied independent counsel Kenneth Starr for years, before he produced a complete exoneration of the Clintons and all their staff.
Starr delayed announcing his findings until after the 1998 Congressional elections. That example of the political use of such investigations shows the other reason why Republicans keep crying “Watergate”. More than one Republican Congressman admitted that the House Select Committee on Benghazi was mainly the House Republican Committee to Get Hillary.
Watergate was a unique moment of presidential corruption. Many Republican figures pleaded or were found guilty. The vote to impeach Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisan. There is no point in continuing the Republican cover-up.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 19, 2016