WASHINGTON, August 9, 2014 – President Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago today. Had he not resigned, he would almost certainly have been impeached, and probably convicted, for crimes revealed in the wake of the Watergate break-in.
G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel for the Committee to Re-elect the President, E. Howard Hunt, James McCord, and Jeb Stuart Magruder developed a plan to plant listening devices in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Complex and copy documents. They ran their plan by Attorney General John Mitchell and the president’s counsel, John Dean.
Two break-ins and phone-taps produced no useful information. During the third break-in, five men were caught, tried before Judge John Sirica, and ultimately convicted of burglary. Documents found on them implicated members of the president’s staff, including Mitchell, who were eventually found guilty of perjury, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and refusing to answer questions.
The string of abuses attributed to the Nixon Administration eventually included maintaining an enemies list and subjecting people and organizations on it to increased scrutiny and harassment by the IRS, as well as issuing politically motivated orders to the CIA and FBI. A $100,000 campaign contribution from Howard Hughes was big news. President Nixon was forced from office when a “smoking gun” tape appeared that showed that he’d been lying to his lawyers, his aids and the country about his knowledge of the break-in for two years.
The Watergate scandals made stars of members of the press and news organizations, especially Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post and the New York Times. It resulted in changes to campaign finance laws, the American Bar Association’s code of ethics, the conversion of reporters into celebrities, a flood of new journalism graduates, and sweeping changes to the makeup of Congress. It also helped launch, in a small way, the career of Hillary Rodham.
Forty years later, the reforms wrought by Watergate appear mostly hollow, and our tolerance for abuses of power has risen dramatically.
Campaign finance reform did not reduce the influence of money on our elections, nor the power of the wealthy and well-connected to influence politicians. President Clinton eventually provided nights in the White House as gifts for major donors and permitted fund-raising phone calls from administration offices, and President Obama has scarcely let a day go by without political fundraising. Storm and fury over Citizens United continues to animate America’s left, and populists left and right believe that America’s government is bought and paid for. Post-Watergate reforms seem to have made things worse, not better.
The cult of celebrity journalists turned reporters from journalists to stars to talking-head jokes. Journalism is as politicized as it’s ever been – more than 90 percent of journalists supported Obama in 2008 – and TV journalism is about big salaries, big egos, and cable programs that make no pretense of objectivity. Print journalism is imploding, and even the New York Times is facing plummeting ad revenue. The economics of this implosion have little to do with Watergate, but the armies of unemployed journalists wandering the land to find a paying gig owe something to the explosion of the journalism ranks after 1975.
Most damning, a Congress and an electorate that were united in their revulsion at the political use of the IRS and other government abuses of power can scarcely get up the energy to yawn over those things today. A press that laid out charges against the Nixon Administration in gruesome detail is bored by Obama Administration gun-running, dissembling by the U.S. Attorney General, and use of the IRS to play political hardball.
Nixon’s abuses were really nothing new, nor are Obama’s. What’s new are the levels of cynicism and hypocrisy meeting those abuses. Nixon’s “imperial presidency” was an outrage to guardians of liberty in the 70s; Obama’s presidency, which displays an almost Louis XIV regality. Michelle Antoinette’s nose for the sumptuous put’s Nancy Reagan’s new china to shame.
The blame for an ever-more-imperial presidency is not the fault of Nixon or Obama. It represents a failure of Congress to maintain its own prerogatives, and the eagerness of individual senators and representatives to put their own interests above those of the institution. Congress was designed to be the primary repository of power in Washington, but to maintain that power requires a sense of vision and dedication to the institution.
In the current political climate, members of Congress are unwilling to exercise leadership or take risks. Their idea of leadership is to make speeches, to wait like so many pigeons for the president to move first so that they can cover him in excrement. But any president willing to put up with that is left to function as he can and as he pleases.
Congress has become reactive rather than proactive, and so power has devolved naturally to the president and the courts. That trend seems unlikely to change if Republicans take the Senate.
Forty years after Watergate, almost nothing Nixon did could shock us. We’ve learned to make excuses and to ignore. The outrage of 40 years ago seems almost quaint and provincial, like shock over extramarital sex or smoking pot. America has learned nothing. That bodes ill for the next 40 years.