“We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”
— Richard Nixon to H.R. Haldeman and Henry Kissinger on July 1, 1971, transcript of Oval Office tapes.
“The sad residue of Watergate was so many people saw that their president had lied for 15 months, and saw it so vividly and directly, that a basic cynicism started in this country … I don’t believe anything that comes out of Washington. It seems to me that both political parties are in a conspiracy, for some reason, not to tell us the truth.”
— Henry Ruth, Deputy Special Prosecutor, Watergate
The House Judiciary Committee indulged in some bizarre (and lame) theatrics in bringing Watergate co-conspirator-turned-star-witness John Dean to “testify” on the “historical context” of the Mueller Report. The sad residue of Watergate, indeed.
The mere fact that — 47 years after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC — we reflexively attach the suffix “gate” to scandals of every stripe is sufficient evidence that we are living in the long shadow of the events of 1972–74.
Dean’s appearance was a bit of personal synchronicity for me, because I had spent about six hours of travel time on a deep dive into Watergate with a variety of podcasts and documentaries. Why? Can’t really say — except that I was nagged by a sense that the faultlines have become a chasm in our political culture were first ripped open by the interrelated calamities of the Vietnam War and Watergate. And I didn’t feel like I knew enough about it.
Watergate loomed like a toxic grey shadow in my childhood. I was too young to have any grasp of the events, but I remember Nixon’s resignation, which happened when I was eight years old. I remember my parents — particularly my mother — being utterly dismayed. My mom had a variety of esoteric spiritual beliefs, an above-average helping of artistic talent — and an authoritarian streak that gravitated to Richard Nixon’s brand of big-government conservatism. For about a decade after Watergate, she insisted that Lyndon Johnson had done worse (probably true) and that Nixon had been persecuted by “the liberals” and the press.
She would have vomited at the sight of John Dean testifying last week. She hated that guy; thought he was a slimy rat that was only out for himself. Which is hard to disagree with. I can’t stand to listen to him pontificate either. Nevertheless, he did tell the truth in 1973 about the wrongdoing in the Oval Office. The fatal tapes proved him out.
It wasn’t until a tranche of those tapes were released in 1987 that showed Nixon to be foul-mouthed, petty, anti-semitic, a crook and a liar, that she acknowledged that he really did have to go.
The tragedy is that Nixon was probably the best-prepared and most qualified man to ever hold the office. He’d served in the military, had practiced law, served as a congressman, a Senator, (almost) governor of a major state and as Vice President of the United States. He was, by all accounts, truly brilliant in his ability to suss out geopolitical and strategic trends, and his “opening to China” and détente with the Soviet Union were significant and lasting triumphs.
He also carried around a super-sized chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t cool like Kennedy, was mean as a rick of rattlesnakes and had a paranoid streak as wide as a California interstate. His morose self-pity wasn’t just grotesque — it was a major character flaw and it helped to bring him down.
At every turn in the Watergate scandal, he chose to do the wrong thing. Character is fate.
The Watergate paradigm is all over the current circus in Washington, DC. Trumpster Roger Stone has a tattoo of Nixon’s face on his back. Seriously.
The President himself has Twitter instead of tapes, and a Nixonian tangle of character flaws without compensating brilliance. The Democratic Party wanted so badly for the Mueller Report to set the table for a Watergate-style takedown of Donald Trump that they were gobsmacked when they discovered that the special counsel wasn’t going to hand them a “smoking gun.” Many in the media would love nothing more to be in on the kill, but they lack the journalistic chops of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — and they don’t understand that bloviating in cable TV panel discussions isn’t the same thing as the careful, unglamorous work Woodward and Bernstein and other reporters did back in the ’70s.
The spectacle gives credence to Karl Marx’s old saw that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Thing is, Watergate looms gigantic — yet it is little understood. It’s well worth taking some time to dig into the story, because we’re living in the blast crater of that third-rate burglary and shabby coverup right now, and will likely be for decades to come.
(Note: The original version of this post stated that Nixon was governor of a major state. That is incorrect. He ran for governor of California in 1962 and lost, leading to his famous statement to the press that “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”(
Slate’s Slow Burn podcast won all kinds of kudos and deservedly so.
I got a lot out of Watergate + 30.
Watergate: The Secret Story was worthy, too.
Probably the best piece was this one: