A journalist who covered Nixon’s fall 45 years ago explains why the current challenge to America may be more severe—and the democratic system less capable of handling it.
For me, Watergate is anything but hazy. I’d left graduate school and begun my first magazine job, with The Washington Monthly, in the fall of 1972, as news of the scandal emerged. Over the next two years, until Richard Nixon’s resignation, I was living in D.C. and tracking the daily progress in clue-following and domino-toppling via stories in The Washington Post and elsewhere—and then the riveting, televised Watergate hearings that made national celebrities of politicians like Senators Howard Baker and Sam Ervin, and of White House aides like Alexander Butterfield (who revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret system for taping White House conversations) and John Dean (who as White House counsel had told Nixon, “there is a cancer on the presidency”). Anyone of conscious age in that time can probably remember the jolts to national sentiment that the near-daily revelations evoked.
But based simply on what is known so far, this scandal looks worse than Watergate. Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself. Here is a summary of some reasons why:
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The underlying offense
At some point in the coverage of every scandal you’ll hear the chestnut “It’s always the cover-up, never the crime.” This refers of course to the historical reality that scandal-bound figures make more problems by denying or lying about their misdeeds than they would if they had come clean from the start.
This saying first became really popular in the Watergate era—which is significant for what it suggests about the gravity of the underlying crime in that case. Richard Nixon’s beleaguered press secretary Ron Ziegler, a Sean Spicer–like figure of that era, oversold the point when he dismissed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters as a “third-rate burglary.” But the worst version of what Nixon and his allies were attempting to do—namely, to find incriminating or embarrassing information about political adversaries ranging from Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence O’Brien to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—was not as bad as what came afterward. Those later efforts included attempts to derail investigations by the FBI, the police, and various grand juries and congressional committees, which collectively amounted to obstruction of justice.
The blatancy of the interference
A climactic event of the Watergate saga, the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973, is too complex to lay out in full. (More here.) Its essence was a nearly-last-gasp attempt by Nixon to prevent a special prosecutor from getting full access to the Oval Office tapes whose existence had recently become known.
But even in his stonewalling, Nixon paid lip service to the concepts of due process and check and balances. (His proffered solution was something called the “Stennis compromise,” in which the very conservative Senator John Stennis, from Mississippi, would “listen” personally to the tapes and summarize their content. As it happens, Stennis was famous for being practically deaf.) Nixon wanted to survive and win, but he wanted to act as if he was doing so while sticking to some recognizable rules.
The nature of the president
Richard Nixon was a dark but complex figure. Of his darkness, this obituary/denunciation by Hunter S. Thompson provides a nice overview. Of his complexity, assessments from Garry Wills’s seminal Nixon Agonistes in 1970 to John Farrell’s Nixon: A Life just this spring emphasize the depth and sophistication of his political and strategic intelligence. He was paranoid, resentful, bigoted, and a crook. He was also deeply knowledgeable, strategically prescient, publicly disciplined—and in some aspects of his domestic policy strikingly “progressive” by today’s standards (for instance, his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency).
The resiliency of the fabric of American institutions
The Saturday Night Massacre acquired that name because of the number of people involved. When Archibald Cox, a famous Harvard Law School professor whom Congress had named the Watergate special prosecutor, rejected the “Stennis compromise” and insisted on getting the raw White House tapes himself, Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson—a Republican, a Boston Brahmin, a World War II hero—refused to obey the order, and resigned. The next in the chain of command was William Ruckelshaus, also a Republican, who had been the founding head of the EPA and then was Richardson’s deputy at the Justice Department. Ruckelshaus also refused to obey the order and resigned. Eventually it fell to the solicitor general, a not-yet-famous figure named Robert Bork, to carry out the order and fire Cox.
What would it take for today’s institutions to show that they are as healthy and resilient as they were even during the troubled Watergate era? History isn’t fair, and much of the burden of answering that question falls right now on one man. That is of course Rod Rosenstein, the newly confirmed deputy attorney general who, because of Jeff Sessions’s supposed recusal from the Russian-affairs investigations, is nominally in charge of them. If he wanted to be remembered as another Richardson, Ruckelshaus, or Cox, he would already have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor, or would do so today. Mr. Rosenstein, a lot depends on you.
The cravenness of party leaders
The Republicans of the Watergate era stuck with Richard Nixon as long as they could, but they acted all along as if larger principles were at stake. This I remember more clearly than any other aspect of that era, because the very first article I did for a big national magazine was a profile for Esquire, published not long after Nixon had resigned, about one of the very conservative Republicans who had finally chosen principle over party. That Republican was Charles Wiggins, a staunchly right-wing representative from Southern California who was on the House Judiciary Committee (and later became a Ninth Circuit appeals-court judge).
I followed him through the impeachment-committee hearings in 1974 as he weighed the evidence and finally decided that Nixon had lied too often and gone too far (and wrote about his journey in “The Ordeal of Mr. Wiggins”). The important point is, he was one of many congressional Republicans of that era who acted as if their responsibilities were broader than sheer party-line solidarity.
On the merits, this era’s Republican president has done far more to justify investigation than Richard Nixon did. Yet this era’s Republican senators and members of congress have, cravenly, done far less. A few have grumbled about “concerns” and so on, but they have stuck with Trump where it counts, in votes, and since Comey’s firing they have been stunning in their silence.
Today’s party lineup in the Senate is of course 52–48, in favor of the Republicans. Thus a total of three Republican senators have it within their power to change history, by insisting on an honest, independent investigation of what the Russians have been up to and how the mechanics of American democracy can best defend themselves. (To spell it out, three Republicans could join the 48 Democrats and Independents already calling for investigations, and constitute a Senate majority to empower a genuinely independent inquiry.) So far they have fallen in line with their party’s leader, Mitch McConnell, who will be known in history for favoring party above all else.
I was 24 years old when I followed Charles Wiggins—and the other Republicans of that era, from Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker (and many Senate colleagues) to Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, who finally decided to be remembered for something greater than clinging to office or toeing the party line. Somewhere a 24-year-old is watching and preparing to remember the choices our leaders are making now. Because of the current lineup of legislative and executive power, the leaders whose choices matter are all Republicans.
I hope some of their choices, soon, allow them to be remembered as positively as are the GOP’s defenders of constitutional process from the Watergate days. But as of this moment, the challenge to the American system seems more extreme than in that era, and the protective resources weaker.