Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which triggered the scandal that Watergate historian Stanley Kutler has rightly called “the most significant constitutional challenge in this country since the Civil War.” This milestone merits a mention, if only because so many in this amnesiac nation are probably hazy or clueless about the war on democracy that was waged from inside the White House in that era of typewriters, vinyl records, and rotary phones.
Richard Nixon’s criminal enterprise, which landed 40 aides in jail, was too vast to summarize in a few words. What matters today is how thoroughly we have absorbed Watergate into our political bloodstream — and not for the better — and how the high-minded reforms inspired by Watergate have largely withered and died.
From today’s vantage point, it’s hard to appreciate the havoc wreaked by Watergate. Before the scandal (and Vietnam), most Americans actually trusted their political leaders. Then came the revelations of electoral sabotage, illegal wiretaps, burglaries, and hush money (Nixon on tape: “Take care of the jackasses who are in jail”), as well as the president’s anti-Semitic rants (Nixon on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg: “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it”).
Watergate conditioned Americans to distrust their government, think the worst of their leaders, and use Washington as a pejorative. The corrosive cynicism that pervades our culture today was forged then. Granted, we don’t view all our presidents as mendacious criminals (Nixon ordering a burglary: “I want it implemented on a thievery basis”), but we do tend to conflate relatively small furors with big scandals — typically by appending the suffix -gate.
Over the years, we have had Lancegate (after a Jimmy Carter aide), Billygate (after Carter’s brother), Koreagate, Debategate, Troopergate, Zippergate, Nannygate (over the hiring of illegal aliens), Travelgate, Nipplegate (Janet Jackson), Weinergate, Solyndragate, and hundreds more. One of the latest, “Bushheadgate,” was coined after the HBO show Game of Thrones apparently used a prosthetic likeness of George W. Bush for one of its many severed heads.
Thus we trivialize Watergate to the point where all wrongdoing seems tarred with the same rhetorical brush.
There was, however, a brief moment during the mid-’70s when idealists in Washington set out to ensure that nothing like Watergate would happen again. Mindful that the scandal was abetted by an unprecedented flow of illegal secret money, Congress enacted campaign-finance reforms to ensure that rich folks wouldn’t buy future elections. (Don’t laugh.) And mindful that Nixon had ordered the firing of a Watergate special prosecutor, lawmakers created independent prosecutors who would be free to unearth scandals without fear of being fired.
But the independent counsels ran rampant, spending wildly in pursuit of small fry and relative trivia. One spent $20 million on a four-year probe of an agriculture secretary who allegedly took free sports tickets. Another spent two years probing a White House aide who may have snorted cocaine at a disco. Another, Kenneth Starr, dogged Bill Clinton with all the zeal of Javert in “Les Miserables,” authoring a report that trafficked in soft porn.
The independent counsel law was allowed to expire in 1999. Nobody mourned its passing, not even Starr. One former counsel, Joseph diGenova, predicted that “the death of this law will usher in a new era of reasonableness in our conduct of politics.” (Insert joke here.)
As for those campaign-finance reforms, we know how well they turned out. Congress set up public financing for presidential elections, funded by taxpayers forking over a few bucks a year. The plan was to limit campaign spending and freeze out fat-cat donors. It worked for a quarter-century — until 2000, when Bush became the first major candidate to opt out of public financing during the primary season; in 2008, Barack Obama became the first major-party nominee to opt out in the fall. Today, public financing is so dead that it’s rarely mentioned.
Meanwhile, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the fat cats are back, fueling the super-PACs behind a veil of secrecy. The heavy hitters who bankrolled Nixon would surely have appreciated the 2010 ruling that touted big money as free speech. Democracy is for sale again — as it was during Watergate.
Perhaps it’s human nature that has dulled us to the significance of Watergate. Nixon himself probably said it best a month before his death: “Politics is a dirty business, regardless of how many ethics laws are passed. Nobody really learns anything from politics. Nobody really learns from others’ mistakes.” Which is a Nixonian way of saying that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.