Sunday, 17 June 2012

Watergate: Forty Years On


Forty years ago today, on June 17, 1972, five men were arrested during a burglary at The Democratic Party HQ, in the Watergate building, in Washington DC, four and a half months before the U.S. Presidential Election that led to the re-election of President Richard Nixon for a second term.

The burglary was scarcely noticed by the media, amidst the drama and excitement of the campaign between Nixon and Democratic candidate George McGovern. However, two young local Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued the story, despite the many obstacles placed in their path. The trail eventually led to President Nixon himself, as it became increasingly clear that, whether or not the burglary had been ordered at his behest, he had driven the attempt to cover up the crime. Nixon was forced to resign the presidency (the only time in US history that this has happened) on August 9, 1974, just over two years after the arrest of the Watergate burglars.

In Esquire magazine, Charles P. Pierce suggests how little we have learnt from the Watergate scandal:

Looking back now, how very little we came to learn from it. The purported "lessons" of Watergate lasted only a little longer than the cover-up did. The theories of exalted executive power with which Nixon justified his crimes to the nation and in his own tortured mind, and which he ably described later to David Frost as "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal," have become firmly entrenched in our government in the decades since the Watergate pageant closed and, as a self-governing citizenry, we seem to be generally fine with that. If the "lessons" of Watergate really were that "the system worked," and that "the people" triumphed, then Ronald Reagan wouldn't have survived Iran-Contra, George W. Bush wouldn't have gotten away with what his campaign did in Florida, let alone what he and Dick Cheney did once they got into office, and Barack Obama would be under more heat than he's under right now for continuing so many of the Bush-Cheney policies in the area of civil liberties, and might think more than twice about letting the drones fly under some fanciful interpretation of Article I that should have instantly melted away, if the "lessons" of Watergate had been as thoroughgoing as they were alleged to be at the time.

In The Independent, Rupert Cornwell argues that, if the Watergate break in had happened in 2012, the President would have got away with it.
In The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, sharing a by-line together for the first time in 36 years, argue that Nixon was even worse than we previously thought

Nixon had lost his moral authority as president. His secret tapes — and what they reveal — will probably be his most lasting legacy. On them, he is heard talking almost endlessly about what would be good for him, his place in history and, above all, his grudges, animosities and schemes for revenge. The dog that never seems to bark is any discussion of what is good and necessary for the well-being of the nation. The Watergate that we wrote about in The Washington Post from 1972 to 1974 is not Watergate as we know it today. It was only a glimpse into something far worse. By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.

The story of Woodward and Bernstein's investigation of the scandal was made into a film, All The President's Men in 1976. In the scene below, their secret government informant, nicknamed "Deep Throat"* reveals that the two reporters are in danger as a result of their reporting:


* In 2005, over 30 years after the Watergate scandal, "Deep Throat" was finally revealed to be Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

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