History & Culture / Opinion / Politics

Watergate Reflections– 50 Years On

Watergate

Fifty years ago, Watergate broke, Richard Nixon got implicated, America saw a president resign. The Watergate trial judge who prompted these events with probing questions was Republican John Sirica. As a kid in my early teens, I was absorbed – with my country in crisis. Even now, those days cast shadows.

As a young person and political junkie, first impressions of Nixon were good. He had been Eisenhower’s vice president, beat Johnson who let Vietnam drag on, ended that war, opened China, was a diehard anti-Soviet, smart, irreverent, not very photogenic, but seemed to know the process.

Then came Watergate, and new facts poured out. Nixon’s faults included initiating bad events, but worse, covering them up, lack of judgment, weakness, thinking loyalty trumped integrity, which it never does. In the end, he set the traps for himself, and stepped in them.

Details blur, but in that time, I listened to the radio (no internet or non-stop cable), read every book written about the event, taped the hearings, thought the world was coming to an end – that we had just averted democratic government’s Armageddon. Growing up calm in America, this was unsettling.

Of course, I was not a lawyer, did not work in Congress, federal court, White House, or any part of government. I had never written for a paper. It just all sounded terribly serious, drama drove interest.

Then one day, thirty years ago, a funny thing happened. I was working in DC, and walked into a secondhand bookstore, where a pile of papers stood in the front area. They were the private papers of Judge Sirica, who had driven the entire Watergate process.  He had just died.

On a whim, with time to burn, the owner let me go through them. For a pittance, I ended up buying his personal diaries of the Watergate trial, three books. I read and read them, and eventually they found their way from my hands into the possession of a major public library, where they are today.

However, they taught me several things. First, keeping notes on big events is important – in all lives, not least for the nation, if ever you find yourself in such a spot. Second, the federal bench at its best is wholly independent of politics – Sirica, a lifetime Republican, was. That mattered.

Finally, life is filled with irony: A young man interviewed to clerk for Sirica, but Sirica did not select him. His name was John Dean. He went to work for the Nixon White House, eventually brought it down – and put dozens in front of Judge Sirica, by chance. 

Sirica wrote a book called “For the Record,” Dean one called “Blind Ambition,” and they too teach extraordinary lessons, as do Nixon’s later books, from “RN” and “The Real War” to “Leaders,” “No More Vietnams,” “Real Peace,” and “Seize the Moment.”  His first was “Six Crisis.” Writing matters.

Years swept past, and one day – not so many years ago, after becoming a lawyer, clerking for a federal court, working in Congress, two White Houses, I accidentally bumped into John Dean. He knew nothing of the Sirica diaries, and so – before they ended up at the public library – I let him read them. 

He was amused, and I am sure he found things in them that I did not, that I knew nothing about, and perhaps got the old judge’s perspective from his handwritten words. But the whole Watergate event today – at least to me – means what it may not to others. 

These days, I am inclined to think we have too many crises, that Watergate – for all its significance – set in motion a feeding frenzy in the press, initiated disrespect for office, institutions, even the proper role of the press.

These days, uttering the name Watergate seems to lionize the press, as every “Tom, Dick, and Harry” – and “Sally” – wants to be a hard-bitten investigative reporter, to bring down the next Republican president, and glad for it. There is a cheapness to modern reporting, fact gathering, which somehow did not exist prior to Watergate, does not – at times – seem to properly honor the First Amendment.

Cheaper too is the idea of congressional inquiry, real and honest investigation, seeking truth not glamor or gain, thinking about the country not television, tweets, and your name. Watergate changed all that. Crisis and impeachment, inflaming public passion, delivering shock, even at cost to the Republic is it.

So, what did Watergate really do? Yes, it offered a kind of overdue commitment to accountability for those in public office, something that ironically seems lost again. It lionized those who criticize, even tear apart “the man in the arena,” or woman. It caused us to question those who – for a time – sit in seat of power, populating timeless constitutional institutions. But it also may have damaged those institutions, including integrity within the press and Congress. Just a thought on the 50th anniversary of this event.


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Seaaggie76
3 months ago

We no longer have an independent press (if we ever did) that should but isn’t doing their jobs. For example, is there serious, investigative reporting on the leak on Roe vs Wade? Why is that? As the author noted, it is party instead of country. Finally we really need better laws and control on how outside money flows into the government and the parties. It strikes me that those making decisions in gov’t are financially tied to those decisions. I guess in retrospect, Nixon was more honest than the folks who are now in DC now.

Dan W.
3 months ago
Reply to  Seaaggie76

Interesting conundrum regarding the leak of the draft of Roe. In order for the press to investigate around the ongoing confidential investigation, the press would have to find another leaker to report on what, if anything, has been discovered so far.

Dar Klontz
3 months ago

Nixon didn’t beat Johnson because Johnson didn’t run in 1968. His popularity was so bad (similar to Biden’s) so he chose not to run. He announced early in 1968 and that opened up the flood gates for Primary Candidates. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the nominee and was beaten by Nixon.

Art
3 months ago

Watergate was not necessary. There was nothing to be gained except satisfying the paranoia of a select group. President Ford did the right thing at the right time to remove Nixon from the public arena via a pardon saving the United States a lot of pain. As previously noted in AMAC Opinions “Dirty Tricks are now more sophisticated.” Only now they become fuel for useless and wasteful media frenzy and political theater.

Honey
3 months ago

Too bad specials have been on lately that could have been really insightful about history. But they are all made by left leaning film makers.

The one on Watergate, was superficial and was heavy on the Liddy nuttiness and who knows how much of the Martha Mitchell treatment was correct? There was to me a shadowy comparison to the danger of Trump. But maybe that was just me. It didn’t work if that was their intention.

But the real loser was First Ladies. Especially how they dealt with the Obamas.

Nixon was hated by the left because he obsessively hated Communism and good for him for that.
But he became a disappointment for the right when he asked that they support him and then he went on to sabotage a lot of what they wanted done. Read William Rusher to see more on this.

Dan W.
3 months ago
Reply to  Honey

For Nixon, it was loyalty to Nixon first, to party second and to country third.

Morbious
3 months ago

Some good comments below to which ill add this: I started college in 72. The nixon hate was palpable. Watergate was not yet the dominant news item. I was uninterested in politics but figured there must be a reason for the hatred other than the mans five o’clock shadow and shifty manner. Many years later i found the root cause. The left hated nixon for his actions during the 50s when HUAC was trying to root out communists. Nixon was a big part of that. For that he could never be forgiven. They were hunting him for twenty years which, I believe, contributed to his natural paranoia. He bungled a bungled burglary and the rest is history.

Michael Lewis
3 months ago

 Below was posted as comment to: Dirty Tricks Are Only More Sophisticated 50 Years after Watergate
https://amac.us/dirty-tricks-are-only-more-sophisticated-50-years-after-watergate/?campaign=daily-news-email&dderh=abb6c386e0fe67ec93648dea7bd38bbc

We all know that, as things actually are, many of the most influential and most highly remunerated members of the Bar in every center of wealth, make it their special task to work out bold and ingenious schemes by which their wealthy clients, individual or corporate, can evade the laws which were made to regulate, in the interests of the public, the uses of great wealth. – T. Roosevelt, 1905

In the words of E.W. Scripps: A newspaper must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper’s income… The press in this country is dominated by the wealthy few…that it cannot be depended upon to give the great mass of the people that correct information concerning political, economical and social subjects which it is necessary that the mass of people Shall have in order that they vote…in the best way to protect themselves from the brutal force and chicanery of the ruling and employing classes – E.W. Scripps – American Newspaper Publisher 1854-1926

The American people don’t believe anything until they see it on television. – Richard M. Nixon

After Watergate, to protect the public from the appearance of corruption, The Federal Election Campaign Act abridged the freedoms of speech press and assembly of the regulated class: candidates for Federal Office, political parties, PACs and individual citizens.

But the corporate media were exempted because government could not infringe their 1st Amendment rights

52 U.S. Code § 30101 – Definitions (9)(B) The term “expenditure” does not include— (i) any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate; – law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/52/30101

This created a “Royal”, “State Approved” press!

But if candidates and political parties have to pay for time/space in the media, then why are favorable editorials considered to have no value if they are published by corporate media, unless the media is controlled by a political party, political committee, or candidate?

“The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” -Alex Carey, Australian social scientist who pioneered the investigation of corporate propaganda

The people will believe what the media tells them they believe. – George Orwell

It is normal for all large businesses to make serious efforts to influence the news, to avoid embarrassing publicity, and to maximize sympathetic public opinion and government policies. Now they own most of the news media that they wish to influence. – Excerpt from Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian – 1920-2016

In 1983, 90% of American media was owned by 50 companies. In 2011, that same 90% is controlled by 6 companies.

Campaign laws are responsible for the corporate voice having more influence in our elections than the voice of natural persons!

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreicate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. – Frederick Douglass

To restore equal rights to citizens, federal candidates, political parties and PACs “We the People” should ask our representatives in the Senate and House to revisit “S. 2416 — 113th Congress: Free All Speech Act of 2014.” GovTrack.us. 2014. June 15, 2022 & govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s2416

113th CONGRESS

2d Session

S. 2416

IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES

June 3, 2014

Mr. Cruz introduced the following bill; which was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

A BILL

To apply laws that restrict the political speech of American citizens to media corporations.

1. Short title
This Act may be cited as the Free All Speech Act of 2014 .

2. Application of laws that restrict the political speech of American citizens to media corporations
(a) In general
Any law that restricts the political speech of American citizens shall apply with equal force to media corporations, such as the New York Times, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the CBS Television Network.

(b) No application to American citizens if application to media corporations found unconstitutional
To the extent that the application of a law to a media corporation under subsection (a) is found unconstitutional, such law shall have no force or effect with respect to American citizens.

Philip Hammersley
3 months ago

My question has always been: Was this really related just to the election? Some have speculated, since all the “plumbers” were Cuban, that they were looking for links between the DNC and Castro. Of course, Gordon Liddy wouldn’t spill the beans on that!
Always look for motive. Nixon had the election won already; he didn’t need election info.

Tom
3 months ago

Of course no mention was made of looking for election improprieties in a Florida county.

Mary Annie
3 months ago

Another thought provoking piece! Thank you RBC. The important lesson I learned from Six Crisis is that the resolution of a crisis is usually followed by another mini-crisis. Even though one crisis has been resolved, one must remain vigilant and ready to deal with that follow on mini-crisis.

I checked Six Crisis out from my local library. Much to my surprise, it was signed by the author. I researched the signature — it was the real deal! I must have renewed the book at least 10 times and gave a bit of thought to just keeping it. But I finally did the right thing and returned it to the library. It never returned to the shelf.

Richard Nixon ended the Viet Nam war. Therefore he will forever have my respect and gratitude.

Lawrence Greenberg
3 months ago

Watergate was the equivalent of a Sunday School prank compared to the corruption, criminality, and treason of both the Obama and Biden administrations.

David
3 months ago

100% CORRECT!

Lawrence Greenberg
3 months ago
Reply to  David

Thank you. I have been saying this for quite some time.

Dan W.
3 months ago

As accurately described, it was a third-rate burglary (and totally unnecessary).

I dirty tricks boys had already knocked Muskie out of the race by circulating a fake letter leaving Nixon to face the Dems weakest candidate in the general election and Nixon won in a huge landslide.

After the election, all Nixon had to do was to give Mitchell and his gang of tricksters the boot and tell all to the American people and he would have kept his job but he was too afraid of losing power.

Dan W.
3 months ago

Nixon didn’t know that the burglary/bugging at the Watergate was being planned and thought the idea was idiotic when he heard about it after the burglars were arrested.

The burglary would have likely turned into nothing but in Nixon’s paranoid world of plumbers and enemy’s lists, it became essential that the burglars not be connected to John Mitchell’s “dirty tricks” slush fund. A cover-up ensued, the money was followed and the rest is history.

Max
3 months ago

RBC, WATERGATE, secretive until all H*LL broke lose. WATERGATE II has been ongoing since the current administration took over. Amazingly, despite all evidence of malpractice by the Administration and the Congress, LAWLESSNESS continues to be the order of the day with no end in sight. Maybe the mid term elections will change things but it won’t be fast enough and it will be a fight to the top of the hill.

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