Past as Prelude: The Wars of Watergate

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It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out what motivated me to read a comprehensive history of the Watergate scandal titled The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1990), by Stanley I. Kutler. Kutler was Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specialized in U.S. legal and constitutional history, the Vietnam War and the Watergate era. This work provides a thorough analysis of Nixon, the political climate of the Watergate era, and the legal and political issues of the case. As the book has been in circulation for some time others have written scholarly reviews. My intention here is to make some observations about similarities and difference between the Watergate crisis and the current political atmosphere.

The most obvious difference between Nixon and Trump is that Nixon was a lifelong and consummate politician while Trump is a game show host who had no prior political experience when he was elected. Nevertheless, there are many similarities in character. For example:

  • “Nixon thrived on conflict, conflict that ineluctably resulted from a lifetime of accumulated resentments, both personal and political.” (125)
  • “Magnanimity, generosity, and tolerance simply did not exist in his political vocabulary. He spurred his chief aides to find men to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service who would do his personal bidding and fill his personal political needs.” (229)
  • “…he simply did not believe in that ”togetherness’ bullshit.” (1026)
  • “Nixon chose to exploit the divisions in American society, carefully calculating what he thought was the winning position.” (1482)
  • “Perhaps Nixon’s long awaited triumph was a negative one, one in which people essentially voted against the opposition and the past. Nevertheless, the victory and power were his, freely won and freely given by those who chose to participate. The verdict could not be denied.” (1644)
  • “…loyalty was demanded of all, not judgment.” (1887)
  • “Even in his first term, life in the White House demonstrated an enormous preoccupation with imagery and with the exploitation of social divisions for immediate political gain.” (1992)
  • “He also raised illegal money from foreign sources. (receiving foreign money apparently was not unusual for a Nixon campaign: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos apparently contributed in both 1968 and 1972). (4547)
  • “The President invoked executive privilege and adamantly opposed any public testimony by his aides.” (5947)
  • “During the morning session on April 14, the President seemed to promise ‘full pardons’ for everyone.” (6602)
  • “The pliable ‘enemy,’ as always, was the media: convince the public that coverage was excessive and that consequently any impeachment or trial would be unfair.” (10996)

This is only the tip of the iceberg. With all of these almost eerie similarities, one remarkable difference is that Nixon managed to hide his dark side from the public until close to the end. Trump has never tried to hide his dark side, in fact he flaunts it. John Dean, convicted Watergate conspirator, wrote this about Trump in 2016,

Mr. Trump is remarkably Nixonian, perhaps even more so than Nixon himself. I say that because while Nixon’s dark and nasty side, largely hidden from public view, got him in trouble, he was also a man of intelligence, with a strong understanding of government, a deep knowledge of the world and a heartfelt vision for lasting peace. If Mr. Trump has such positive qualities, he has kept that side of him well hidden, while giving free rein to his dark and nasty worldview.

There are two areas of difference between the Watergate era and today that strike at the heart of our seeming unwillingness to grasp the depths of the President’s corruption. The first has to do with the House of Representatives. The impeachment investigations of both Nixon and Trump were highly partisan affairs. Most Republicans continued to defend Nixon until the release of the “smoking gun,” and some even after. Nevertheless all Republicans demanded that Nixon comply with House requests for documents and testimony. “House Republican leader John Rhodes (AZ) told Nixon that his party’s congressmen could not afford to defend him if he refused to submit evidence.” (10033) Kutler describes “institutional loyalty” to the Congress as a co-equal branch of government (10156) that simply does not exist among today’s Republicans. The Republican caucus today shows no interest in defending the constitutional prerogatives of the legislative branch. Of course, without those prerogatives the Constitution is a meaningless piece of paper.

The other area of difference is with us. Nixon’s support steadily eroded over the course of 1973 and 1974 as more and more of the Executive Branch’s corruption was revealed. But it was not until the release of the transcripts of the Oval Office tapes that public opinion turned toward impeachment and removal from office. When Nixon released the edited transcripts of the tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office he hoped to be able to show that while he had not acted in the most savory manner he had not committed any impeachable act.

But he had miscalculated. Editorial response was swift and denunciative. “New York Times columnist William Safire thought the transcripts revealed a man ‘guilty of conduct unbecoming a President.’ The transcripts illustrated Nixon’s ‘dark side,’ his ‘sleazy’ acts, his ‘fear’ of personal confrontations…” (10087) The Chicago Tribune wrote “He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane. He is willing to be led. He displays dismaying gaps in his knowledge.” (10128) Kutler notes,

This was no liberal media conspiracy assaulting the President; it was his own people, painfully expressing their outrage and sense of betrayal. No liberal media conspiracy wrote the words  heard on television and printed in the newspapers; they were the President’s own.

The tapes release at this point did not yet provide a “smoking gun” irrefutably linking Nixon with an impeachable crime — at least for his band of loyalists. But they certainly revealed a sleazy, troubled White House. Things had come to such a point that the burden of proof shifted. The legal and constitutional case for impeachment still had to be made, yet the tapes unleashed a chain reaction of public opinion that increased pressure for Nixon either to prove his innocence, or resign, or suffer the consequences of impeachment. (10128)

What is remarkable about this shift in public opinion is that it was not in response to the revelation of a crime, but to the revelation of a crude and unstable President. The people would not stand for that sort of behavior from the President, even in private. Contrast that with the steady stream of sleaze and invective flowing from Trump’s twitter feed and stump speeches.

What did we have then that we don’t have now? The Watergate affair reveals that we have experienced crisis as profound as we find today. The conclusion of the Watergate affair with Nixon’s resignation was heralded as a demonstration that the American system worked. Even Nixon in the end surrendered to the supremacy of the Constitution. One wonders if our current President could. Or the Congress. Or even “we the people.”

References are locations in the Kindle edition:

Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Knopf; 1st edition (August 28, 2013). 773 Pages.