Can it really be 40 years since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex during President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign of 1972?
Those of us who lived through it may remember being mesmerized by the Senate Watergate hearings, presided over by the colorful country lawyer, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina; the gripping testimony of White House counsel John Dean; the 18 1/2-minute gap at a key point in the voluminous White House tapes; the Saturday Night Massacre in which the president fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox; the White House “plumbers” and burglars including Howard Hunt, James McCord and G. Gordon Liddy, and of course the president’s famous declaration, “I’m not a crook.”
President Nixon’s many high crimes and misdemeanors caused the House Judiciary Committee to pass an article of impeachment against him. But Nixon cheated the executioner by resigning the presidency in August 1974. He spent the rest of his life trying to restore his shattered reputation.
Now, four decades after their courageous, groundbreaking reporting for The Washington Post brought the Watergate scandal to light, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have taken a look back as part of a terrific multimedia package on Watergate on www.washingtonpost.com.
As they reflect on Watergate in their first shared byline for the Post in 36 years, they conclude it was far more sinister than the “third-rate burglary” Nixon’s spin meisters dubbed it.
It was, they write, a criminal subversion of the US Constitution and the democratic process as the president systematically tried to neuter the Democratic Party, censor the free press and run roughshod over the Constitutional rights of his political opponents :
In the course of his five-and-a-half-year presidency, …Nixon launched and managed five successive and overlapping wars — against the anti-Vietnam War movement, the news media, the Democrats, the justice system and, finally, against history itself. All reflected…a willingness to disregard the law for political advantage, and a quest for dirt and secrets about his opponents as an organizing principle of his presidency.
The two reporters haven’t mellowed on Nixon at all; in fact they see him as even more malevolent, citing example after example:
In a tape from the Oval Office on Feb. 22, 1971, Nixon said, “In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war.”…
On Oct. 10, 1972, we [outlined] the extensive sabotage and spying operations of the Nixon campaign and White House, particularly against [Maine Democratic Senator Edmund ]Muskie, and stating that the Watergate burglary was not an isolated event …In a memo to [White House chief of staff H.R.] Haldeman and [Attorney General John] Mitchell dated April 12, 1972, Patrick Buchanan and another Nixon aide wrote: “Our primary objective, to prevent Senator Muskie from sweeping the early primaries, locking up the convention in April, and uniting the Democratic Party behind him for the fall, has been achieved.”
President Nixon was a distinctly unsympathetic figure—racist, virulently anti-Semitic, a mess of self-loathing and paranoia. The president, who never seemed comfortable in his own skin, boiled over with resentments he directed against the world, with nearly catastrophic consequences, as Woodward and Bernstein wrote:
By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.
To this day, the media praise his successor, President Gerald Ford, for pardoning Nixon and not “subjecting” the nation to more turmoil by trying the ex-president for his crimes.
But I wonder whether the lesson of that was that US presidents will always be above the law, domestic or international.
That’s just part of the sobering legacy of one of the greatest Constitutional crises in American history.