Remember the Lessons of Watergate? We Still Should Remember Them

tags: Watergate

Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.

As we commemorate the forty-year anniversary of the culmination of the Watergate saga and, ironically, find ourselves in another season of scandal, it seems appropriate to reconsider All the President’s Men.  Speaking across nearly four decades, relating their mythic quest for answers, the young Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward continue to offer timeless lessons worth modern reflection. 

Patience & Endurance

Surprisingly, the Washington Post reporters essentially had the larger story right and intact within a few weeks.  In a nutshell: five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex with the intent to gather political intelligence.  Laden with incriminating evidence linking them to the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), presumably, the low-level Watergate burglars were acting on instructions from higher up.  As the evidence mounted, Woodward and Bernstein quickly deduced that the break-in was just a small part of a much larger political intrigue that extended into the highest echelons of the Nixon White House.  And they were right. 

Nevertheless, the investigation took more than two years to play out (the break-in transpired on 17 June 1972; Richard Nixon resigned the presidency August 1974).  The investigation often stalled. Woodward and Bernstein found connecting the dots and filling in the details of the White House role in the operation maddeningly tedious, testing their patience, professionalism, and even their journalistic ethics.  Frustratingly, the reporters seemed at an impasse much more often than they were breaking new ground. 

Moreover, the process of unraveling the story, for a very long time, utterly failed to capture the imagination of the public.  The young newsmen reported nearly the entire story and made it available for public examination before the 1972 General Election.  Notwithstanding, most voters paid little attention to the developing scandal, reelecting Nixon as president in a huge landslide victory.   Notwithstanding, Woodward and Bernstein persevered. 

A Battle Against Long Odds

Why so slow?  The President and the White House held myriad institutional advantages that thwarted an inquiring press.  In essence, at least initially, the government was in charge of investigating itself; that is, the executive branch essentially investigated the executive branch during the early stages of Watergate.  Conflicts of interest and serious questions seemed to abound at every turn within the inquiry.  Were administration officials reigning in the FBI and Department of Justice?  Why did federal investigators so often avoid the most penetrating questions?  Or decline to interview key players?  Why were administration lawyers and CRP officials allowed to sit in on and observe potentially damaging interviews with subordinates? 

Moreover, the administration made use of its power to intimidate witnesses and reporters, sometimes with strong-arm tactics and sometimes with softer appeals to loyalty, patriotism, and ideological coherence.  To add insult to injury, even as the White House exerted great influence on the probe, they shamelessly exploited the ongoing federal investigation and pending legal action as cover for not publicly addressing the many questions surrounding the unfolding intrigue.  With an election looming, the White House expertly delayed, deflected, and misdirected. 

From the most powerful microphone in the nation, administration officials daily, relentlessly declared that there was no more to uncover, nothing more to discuss, and there was no there, there.  The entire story was nothing but “absurdities, suppositions, and hearsay,” the White House repeatedly declared with vehemence. 

Significantly, the long campaign waged by the White House to discredit the “Eastern Establishment” press—and the specific push to vilify the Washington Post—worked.  By and large, the Nixon base (and a large segment of ostensibly independent-minded voters) dismissed the allegations as the product of partisan desperation and a rogue news organization fiendishly focused on the destruction of a President. 

In addition, human nature and the internal logic of the Capital often supported the White House.  Frankly, the charges were often so fantastic that they defied belief.  Basic observations and reasonable conclusions were often overlooked or discounted because of the assumption that they just could not be.  One veteran reporter, reflecting back on an early Nixon news conference, in which the basic facts of the misconduct were first widely known, noted how the “mesmerizing power of the presidency” cowed a grizzled and practiced press corps. 

One Other Lesson of Watergate: Why do good men do bad things?

Opportunity.  So flush with cash, the CRP had the freedom to be imaginative.  So much money floating around tempted the Committee to think in grandiose terms, disastrously grandiose. 

“Deep Throat,” Woodward’s celebrated high-ranking source (whom we now know was Mark Felt, then Associate Director of the FBI), dismissed the conspirators as ordinary men who “got in over their heads.”  Their carefully crafted public image hailed them as super savvy and invincible, but, in fact, they proved much more banal than sinister. 

Higher Calling.  On the other hand, perhaps most significant to understanding their conduct, the President’s men in the White House and CRP shared a sense of great purpose.  They were true believers, most of them.   “Breathing the rarefied air” of the White House and shouldering the massive responsibilities of the Executive Branch, they believed “Nixon was the One.”  Great principles were at stake, and they began to regard the reelection of the President as something of a “holy war.”  In an endeavor of that scale and importance, they decided, the ends justified the means. 

Only Nixon could go to China.  Perhaps it is also true that only a messianic leader, surrounded by true believers, absolutely certain of their moral superiority, could ever truly reach such “Nixonian” heights.

An Important Closing Point: resulting in part from the acclaimed motion picture and the strategic White House decision to spotlight the Post, popular mythology often portrays Woodward and Bernstein as singlehandedly uncovering the crimes and misconduct that brought down the Nixon White House.  They themselves claimed no such singularity.  In truth, the New York Times and the LA Times and Time magazine and many other major media outlets pushed the Post and the story forward on many occasions.  The “boys” at the Post were not lone rangers, but they certainly proved enduring heroes. 

This classic detective story reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.  In the end, the truth won out, aided by tireless investigators, anonymous tipsters, law enforcement agents, various officers of the court, the power of the legislative branch, and, perhaps, maybe even divine providence. 

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