Five men are arrested at 2:30 a.m. trying to break into a sixth-floor office suite. The initial Washington Post story says there was “no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices.” The White House press secretary describes it as “a third-rate burglary.”
Forty years ago the greatest political scandal of the 20th century began to unfold, an episode that would change American politics, transform the way journalism is practised in the world’s democracies, alter the relationship between government and the public around the globe and reshape the English language. Richard Nixon would be forced from the White House – the only chief executive in two and a quarter centuries to resign the office.
For more than two years Watergate left the world both riveted and repelled.
A series of disparate episodes – political intrigue, clandestine operations, cover-ups, financial fudging, high-level political shakeups, court showdowns, secret tapings – came to be known by a single, three-syllable word that raises questions that remain with us still. Should the people entrusted with enforcing the law live above the law? Where does partisan activity end and criminal activity begin? How sturdy is the right of individuals to question and challenge authority?
Throughout this anniversary season, the chronology of this affair will be relived in press retrospectives and even in an imaginative novel by Thomas Mallon called, simply, Watergate. These looks over history’s shoulder will reveal remarkable arrogance and audacity – and put on display equally remarkable acts of grit, ingenuity and courage. And a shorthand was enshrined in the English tongue forever. It sometimes seems there is no scandale too small to escape being designated a “-gate.” (Koreagate, Troopergate, NAFTAgate, Shawinigate).
But the endurance of Watergate in the language and culture of North America doesn’t end the way those words do, with a suffix. We know a deliberately distracting news leak as a “modified limited hangout.” We speak easily of the need to “follow the money,” watch for the “smoking gun,” are on the alert for documents or evidence to be “deep-sixed,” and aren’t be surprised when a source becomes a “Deep Throat.” And we ask a variation of the question that Republican Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. posed: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Watergate wrought great changes in American political culture and the presidency. The financial influence in politics now is well-known. The virtue of the right of individuals to learn more about how they are governed through freedom-of-information requests and “sunshine” laws now is firmly established. But Watergate left us with two great, overriding legacies, contradictory on the surface, complimentary beneath it.
One is a lingering skepticism of institutions and the individuals who head them, contempt for authority figures of all sorts, distrust of the influence of money in politics, and deep doubts of the schoolboy verities of the civics class, especially the twin notions that nobility resides in government and that noble principles animate those who govern us.
Those schoolboy verities were entombed by Richard Nixon. In a memo he wrote himself four months after the Watergate break-in, he asserted, “I have decided my major role is moral leadership.”
So decisively did he extinguish those schoolboy verities that in the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only a quarter of Americans said they have a great deal of confidence in the presidency, as opposed to more than half of the public that expressed a great deal of confidence in the military. Before Watergate, that was the kind of finding one expected to discover in Turkey.
The other Watergate legacy is an enduring appreciation for those who, with courage and conviction, did their duty.
“If we are to talk about the end of Watergate,” Jimmy Breslin wrote in his classic 1975 account of the drive to impeach Richard Nixon, “why don’t we take a walk away from the convicts and step into the shafts of sunlight provided by some of the people who worked for their country, rather than against it?”
Today that reminds us of the value of the free flow of information and, even in these days when the mainstream media is reviled, it prompts an acknowledgment of the ability of the press to shine a light not only on the dark arts of politics but also on the routine functions of government.
Growing out of that – perhaps even in defiance of that – is the assumption that, for all the inherent faults of the political class, ethics in government still should not be a contradiction in terms. Forty years later, that assumption, though tested and tattered, remains with us still.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.