David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
Today, the entire episode seems like an American antique on history’s dusty shelf. The break-in occurred by jimmying a door, discovered when a security guard noticed duct tape placed on a latch to keep it from locking. The money involved was cash, moved by courier. The recordings that broke open the case were made on reels of tape. The Capitol Hill hearings were hours-long marches through evidence, not the slick, made-for-television productions aired this month by the committee examining the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
It all began a half-century ago – June 17, 1972 – when five burglars associated with the re-election efforts of then president Richard M. Nixon breached the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex in an attempt to bug the DNC office suites.
We all thought it was the uber-modern crime. We all thought the scandal it prompted – illegal payments, cover-ups, efforts to stymie investigations – was the most dangerous moment American democracy would ever endure. Fifty years later, the lessons of Watergate seem both bigger and smaller – bigger because they illuminated how fragile were the guardrails of American democracy, and smaller because, in retrospect, Watergate seems almost quaint.
And the element that would surprise those who lived through Watergate the most? That decades later, a man who first pierced public consciousness in October, 1973, by being charged in federal court for anti-Black discrimination in renting his New York apartments, would in time overshadow the man who, during the same week, attempted to manoeuvre out of releasing his official White House tapes in order to blunt the Watergate investigation.
Richard M. Nixon has faded into history, his legacy subject to revisionism, his critics silenced by time or death. Donald J. Trump remains a vivid presence on the American landscape, the most controversial figure in the country’s politics, and a potential 2024 presidential candidate.
“Watergate was an incredibly dangerous moment that qualifies as an important scandal,” said Matthew Dallek, a historian at George Washington University. “But Donald Trump more explicitly rejected the norms of democracy that we expected presidents to follow.”
The Trump era (with its coda of broken windows at the Capitol) provided new perspective on Watergate (with its break-in at DNC headquarters), and the Trump experience cast the Nixon years in a different light, one that would astonish the millions who, a half-century ago, regarded Watergate as a matchless assault on democratic values and Mr. Nixon as a peerless threat to the Constitution.
Mr. Trump wanted to transform his newly adopted party into a rogue vanguard to smash the political establishment; Mr. Nixon, the product of the House, Senate and vice-presidency, personified the political establishment. Mr. Trump was a serial disrupter who sought to undermine the post-Second World War international order and to ransack political norms; Mr. Nixon was a thoroughly conventional figure, a pure distillation of the American domestic and international system who respected and followed the established formalities of public comportment. Though he traduced many of the fundamental values of constitutional rule, unlike Mr. Trump he did not question their legitimacy.
The scandal that began in 1972 gave us the “-gate” suffix that has become ubiquitous; this very month British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a no-confidence vote that grew out of, among other things, “Party-gate,” the shorthand for government leaders’ social events held in contravention to their own COVID-19 restrictions.
Watergate also gave us a script for viewing Washington scandals, as Bill Clinton and Mr. Trump discovered to their immense discomfort in the years that followed: a procession of press revelations, White House denials, administration leaks, struggles with Congress over access to documents, legal fights over appearances before Capitol Hill investigative panels, resignations, court action, special prosecutors, damning reports, righteous statements from the accused and accusers alike.
It also gave us impeachment proceedings, a forbidding element of the Constitution that had not been employed for more than a century when Mr. Nixon found himself in its icy grip. Mr. Nixon resigned rather than be impeached. Mr. Trump was impeached twice but acquitted both times.
“During the Watergate years, people thought Nixon’s abuse of power was bad, and that his cheating on campaigns was bad,” John W. Dean III, the presidential counsellor whose televised testimony provided perhaps the most devastating moment of the June, 1973, hearings, said in an interview. “Yet no one thought that Watergate was a threat to democracy.”
But Watergate suggested, and the Trump years proved, that the vital connecting tissue of the country isn’t so much the Constitution and the rule of law as it is the power of faith in our institutions and an abiding sense of honour among our leaders. Mr. Nixon violated that sense of honour, and Mr. Trump did, too. In doing so, both undermined the public’s faith in America.
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