Been doing a little work for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, one of the most significant events in modern American political history.
The aftershocks of the botched political espionage operation that ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency continue to reverberate today, as evidenced by the persistent tendency to attach the suffix “gate” to any political scandal, large or small, that captures our attention (ie. “Russiagate”).
Even for people who were not yet born when the scandal that absorbed the nation was going down, the way the Watergate investigation unfolded in court, in Congress, and in the media, informs our expectations as to how such scandals should play out — even though it really hasn’t worked out that way since.
The Iran-Contra affair in 1986 (which didn’t lend itself so easily to a “gate” tag — “Irangate” just didn’t ring), was actually a more serious event than Watergate, and it did end up with dramatic congressional hearings and convictions of some of the president’s men. But Ronald Reagan was too popular — indeed, beloved, in some circles — to face impeachment.
“Monicagate” in 1998 was a silly, sad and sordid affair, and ended up with a theatrical swing and a miss at Bill Clinton — impeachment with no possibility of conviction. That pattern played out with “Russiagate,” which proved to be a damp squib, despite much media salivation at the prospect of seeing the scalp of Donald Trump on a pole. Coverage of “Russiagate” brought former Washington Post ace Carl Bernstein back into the spotlight, this time as a commentator rather than a reporter, which is almost a metaphor for the decline of the media in the intervening decades: Nobody in the press was really doing the kind of reporting work on “Russiagate” that Bob Woodward and Bernstein did on Watergate. There was mostly just a lot of speculative commentary. Endless speculative commentary. Speculative commentary that proved mostly wrong.
The scandal over President Trump’s “perfect phone call” in the Ukraine matter was another piece of theater — impeachment with no chance of conviction. Same with the hurried impeachment in the wake of the January 6 storming of the Capitol. One can make a case for the symbolic value of being seen to attempt to hold the Chief Executive accountable, but the fact remains that the mechanism of impeachment lacked the power that it seemed to hold in 1974, when President Nixon resigned before proceedings could be completed, knowing that impeachment was certain and conviction virtually so.
Something else grabs the attention when looking into Watergate and the Nixon presidency. Watch Nixon’s speeches, and, even better, his post-resignation interviews. The man was highly articulate — brilliant, really — with a broad and deep command of history, politics, policy (especially foreign policy), even philosophy. Compare his speeches and interviews with the policy command and elocution of Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
How did the gravitas of our institutions deteriorate so much in 50 years? Why are our choices in presidential candidates so … mediocre? There are plenty of glib answers to those questions, but they don’t satisfy. Maybe it’s just entropy, the tendency of all systems to gradually decline into disorder.
It would be foolish to wax nostalgic, and treat 1972 as some kind of golden age. It wasn’t. The Vietnam War continued to tear at the social fabric of the nation, a fabric that was also rent by social upheavals around gender equity, race, drugs, the environment — all matters that continue to preoccupy us today. The economy was showing the cracks that would lead to significant recessions.
Richard Nixon was brilliant and capable. He was also a seething cauldron of barely contained resentments and paranoia — character flaws that led directly to his downfall in a perfect illustration of Heraclitus’ maxim that character is fate.
But comparing Nixon’s manifest capabilities to those who have held his office in recent years; comparing the functioning of government and the courts then to the dysfunction we see now; comparing the rigor of the press of the 1970s to the self-referential commentariat of today, it’s hard not to wonder why our standards and expectations have slipped so far.
If you’re interested in a really entertaining run through Watergate history, check out Gaslit on STARZ.