COMMON KNOWEDGE: Watergate
Richard Nixon, 37th president of the United States is notorious in US history as being the only one to ever resign from office. The scandal surrounding Nixon catapulted leftists into power in the Democratic Party, emboldened them in culture, and made "Watergate" a world-famous term. From that point on, pundits have tacked "-gate" at the end of every political scandal, trying to relate the events to Nixon's decline.
Watergate was a sordid tale of a president working behind the scenes to destroy enemies and block their political power. President Nixon's office, probably Nixon himself, told men working for him to put bugs in the Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, Washington DC. The men bungled the job and someone spotted them, then the story began to leak out. As time went on, the Nixon administration ordered men to lie to investigators and police, but the men caught planting bugs were being paid by money from the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
President Nixon had taped all conversations and dealings he had without knowledge of people involved and those tapes recorded more than he wanted people to know. The president, or someone at his command, edited the tapes of all conversations in the Oval Office that were seized by subpena by the justice department, leaving gaps covering much of the events. However, enough was discovered that 43 people were indicted, tried, convicted, and incarcerate, including men such as Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, and advisers Charles Colson, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, and investigator G. Gordon Liddy.
The bulk of these convictions were based around the cover-up, attempting to shield the president from the break in and bugging attempts. The break-in its self would have been very embarrassing for the president but was separated enough that he personally was unlikely to have been directly connected. Politically damaging, but not enough to depose President Nixon.
Facing impeachment and probable removal from office, President Nixon decided the country would be better off without the trial and the battle, and resigned from office, leaving Vice President Ford his successor. President Ford soon pardoned President Nixon, stating it was better for the country to not go through any more legal proceedings against a president.
And behind it all, we're told it was the work of crusading journalists, primarily from the Washington Post, who took down President Nixon through meticulous reporting, defying the power base in government. they faced official pressure, wiretaps on their phones, even death threats and feared for their lives, we ere told. Woodward and Bernstein became reporter heroes, with books and movies praising their intrepid investigative journalism. They won awards, and became classic examples in journalism school held up for students to emulate.
Woodward and Bernstein took down a president, that's the line. President Nixon was forced to tell the truth and retire because of heroic Washington Post reporters who defied the odds, the pressure, and the establishment to find the story at all costs. That's what we've been told, but is it true?
The dominant narrative in the film All The President's Men was that two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) discovered the crime, unraveled the connection to the president, dug up the coverup, and toppled the Nixon administration with the help of unknown, shadowy informant "Deep Throat." Except that's just not true. Even BBC News reported not long ago:
Rolling up a scandal of Watergate's dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.
Even then, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI's investigation of the break-in.Woodward and Bernstein both reject the "heroic reporters topple president" narrative. Woodward has repeatedly denied this, such as these quotes:
"The mythologising of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write… that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd."
"To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse s**t."
Washington Post publisher at the time Katherine Graham even said:
Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.Michael Graham, Washington Post Ombudsman during Watergate wrote at the time:
Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.
Even the "follow the money" line telling Woodward to track down the cash and find out what happened was fiction, part of the script in the film, not from real life. The reporters were doing a decent job of journalism, but the idea that their lives were in danger and their phones tapped was scoffed at by Woodward: "We never found any evidence that our phones were tapped or that anyone's life was in danger."
In fact, the information released by Woodward and Bernstein wasn't new or helpful to the investigators. "Deep Throat" (Mark Felt, it was later revealed) simply gave the reporters information that the justice department had already gathered in building their case. The justice system was ahead of the newspaper, not led by it. For example, the revelation that Nixon had tapes of all the discussions on the topic came from testimony by former White House aide Alexander Butterfield before congress.
What's particularly interesting is that many of the things President Nixon was attacked and demonized for weren't particularly unique or new to the office. Presidents since FDR in the 30s had been taping conversations in the oval office. JFK directed the IRS to audit over 10,000 contributors to conservative organizations - political enemies of his - while in office (interestingly enough, no audits were carried out against Nixon's enemies on his list). In the Kennedy administration, Attorney General RFK ordered wiretaps on many political enemies, as well as figures such as Martin Luther King jr. As Geoff Shepherd writes at Politico:
The 1975-76 Church Committee hearings, particularly FBI testimony about actions undertaken for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and The Growth of Domestic Intelligence report, document that such abuses of power hardly began with Nixon.
And Democrats in congress knew all this. Further, many of the things President Nixon was deposed over, President Clinton did and worse, and got away with in office. More troubling, many separation of powers violations took place, such as justice department investigations run by congress, violations of the 5th amendment, and manipulations of trial procedure and evidence to get the desired outcome. Its not that the president and all those guys weren't guilty, its that Democrats in congress broke the rules to make sure they won.
The prosecutor hid evidence from the defense team - something that Justice Department officials have been busted for doing repeatedly recently, having cases thrown out as a result (which suggests that in the past it's been standard policy).
As crimes go, Watergate was pretty minor. Even the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 80s under President Reagan was worse, if handled more cleverly. The Whitewater investigation was looking into far worse crimes as well. Yet the Nixon administration is held up as the worst, most corrupt administration of all time and a byword for Republican perfidy. There have been worse administrations in American history (The Grant administration, for instance, was riddled with corruption, even if President Grant himself wasn't necessarily, and Teapot Dome scandal with Warren G Harding was unbelievably corrupt).
But its Richard Nixon who is held up as the depths of evil and scandal, and two reporters trumpeted as the greatest men ever, inspiring generations of leftists.
One final myth about the Watergate scandal: the number of young people signing up to be journalists after the events increased! Except examination of the enrollment numbers shows that there wasn't any sudden increase:
It's a myth that endures despite its thorough repudiation by scholarly research. One such study, financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation, reported in 1995 that "growth in journalism education" resulted "not from such specific events as Watergate… but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who have been attending universities in record numbers".
The study was unequivocal in stating that "students didn't come rushing to the university because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein — or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, for that matter".
A similar study, released in 1988, declared: "It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments."
Instead that study found that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in.
In the end, the entire thing was awful and illegal, but the mythology that built up around Watergate was awful as well. Today, leftists boast that they took down a president and beat the system, when it was the system that took down the president, and reporters didn't contribute materially to the events.
And when you see scandals like Benghazi taking place, its difficult to even conceive of a few bugs being planted and staff members trying to keep investigators from finding out the connection to the president being such a serious deal. In comparison to more recent scandals by presidents, Watergate seems pathetic and mild.
This is part of the Common Knowledge series. Common Knowledge, things we know that ain't so.