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6 April 2022

Watergate in the age of Donald Trump

Fifty years ago, the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon revealed flaws in American democracy that still haunt US politics today.

By Colin Kidd

In the early hours of 17 June 1972, a chance discovery by Frank Wills – an African-American nightwatchman at the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC – began a sequence of events that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. In the course of his rounds, Wills noticed a door in the Watergate’s basement garage whose locking mechanism had been stuck open with duct tape. Thinking little of it, Wills removed the tape. Checking the door later, he discovered it had been re-taped open – by burglars presumably – and called the police.

By a further quirk of fate, the nearest available police were casually dressed, undercover officers in an unmarked vehicle, whose arrival at the Watergate did not immediately alert the burglars’ lookout man stationed in the Howard Johnson motor lodge across the street. The burglars – including a former CIA electronic eavesdropping expert, who now worked for Nixon’s re-election campaign – were caught red-handed in the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). 

Although the ensuing investigation led immediately to the White House – where one of the organisers of the burglary, Howard Hunt, worked as a consultant – it was possible at first to confine the blame to overzealous underlings. However, investigation of the break-in threatened to shed unwelcome light on a whole range of other White House activities: the wiretapping of journalists, sabotage of Democratic primary campaigns and a ­burglary at the offices of a Californian psychiatrist. Watergate became in time a collective label that encompassed not only the break-in at the DNC but also a bundle of other crimes, dirty tricks and abuses of power.

[See also: Why inflation and the cost-of-living crisis won’t take us back to the 1970s]

Nevertheless, in the six months following the burglary Nixon and his aides orchestrated an effective cover-up: successful in that Nixon – largely unscathed by the scandal – won the 1972 election, trouncing his Democratic opponent George McGovern in 49 out of 50 states. In the early months of 1973, however, the deceit unravelled, and so did Nixon’s administration. Still, Nixon might have held on to power had it not been for a further chance discovery by investigators in the summer of 1973, that the president had secretly recorded all the meetings in his various offices, largely as a source for his future memoirs. 

Nixon’s tapes, it was thought, might provide evidence of the innocence he so nauseatingly proclaimed. Alternatively, they would confirm the revelations of his former aide turned whistle-blower John Dean that the president was involved in the cover-up. The battle for the tapes fought between Nixon and the investigators produced a protracted constitutional crisis, which was resolved by an unambiguous Supreme Court ruling in 1974, disallowing Nixon’s invocation of executive privilege. Among the tapes handed over was the ­“smoking gun” recording of 23 June 1972, in which Nixon can be heard conspiring with his chief of staff to get the CIA to warn the FBI off the latter’s Watergate investigation, on  the spurious grounds of national ­security. 

With the threat of ­impeachment, Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 – the only president ever to do so. Several of his top aides went to jail; however they all enjoyed comfortable, sometimes lucrative, post-Watergate careers: authoring bestselling memoirs or thrillers, becoming pundits, businessmen or – in the case of two of them, Charles Colson and Jeb Magruder – slickly repentant born-again Christians. The only person who ended up in abject poverty was the folk-hero who uncovered the burglary in the first place, Frank Wills. He was celebrated in Ron Turner’s song “The Ballad of Frank Wills”, and played himself in a walk-on part in the film, All the President’s Men, but Wills was unable to cash in on his celebrity. He died at the age of 52, his post-Watergate afterlife one of sad decline, exacerbated by the difficulties of combining low-paid work with the occasional and unsettling demands of media intrusion. 

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As the scandal played out, Watergate had seeped into every nook and cranny of political culture – elite and popular. Long before reality TV, this real-life soap opera supplied hours of addictive and enthralling television. More than 80 million Americans – out of a total population of 212 million –watched all or part of Dean’s televised testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee. Watergate became the defining political scandal of modern times. The media has tended to bestow the suffix “-gate” on every subsequent political disaster large or small, from full-blown criminality to minor gaffe. In the past decade we have had Hillary Clinton’s “servergate” and Donald Trump’s “Russiagate”. 

Yet 50 years after the event, some aspects of Watergate seem strangely defamiliarised. For we now view the scandal through the lens of our own concerns, ranging from Black Lives Matter to anxieties about Donald Trump’s quasi-dictatorial aspirations. In retrospect, Watergate – in terms of both Nixon’s aides and the teams that investigated them – seems a strikingly all-white affair.

In Nixon’s US the civil rights reforms of the previous generation remained a contested issue, one that he discreetly exploited for his own ends. Residential patterns meant that an informal segregation still prevailed in schools, and the court-mandated busing of children across cities was emerging as a major ­grievance – in the north as much as the south. What passed for liberalism in the 1970s fell egregiously short of today’s benchmarks.

Indeed, one of the “liberal heroes” of Watergate, the down-home folksy chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, Sam Ervin, now occupies a more sinister place in popular memory; as an old-style southern Democrat, white supremacist and opponent of black civil rights. Similarly, the lingering threat a re-elected Trump or, more generally, Trumpite Republican populism still pose to constitutional norms means that parallels between Watergate and the present feel both urgent and cautionary.

Nevertheless, Watergate spawned a whole corpus of mythologies, some apparently innocent, others – it now transpires in an era of Trumpite populism and post-truth conspiracies – more pernicious. The most dangerous of these is an ongoing platitude about the robustness of American institutions in the face of a would-be tyrant. Didn’t the events of 1972-74 show that the American constitution was resilient; that no president – however great his electoral majority – was above the law?

Donald Trump at the US Capitol
Donald Trump flanked by Senators Mitch McConnell (left) and Roy Blunt at the US Capitol, March 2019. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Until the emergence of Trump, this myth of complacent self-satisfaction prevented the US from drawing the right lessons from Watergate. Consider the role of sheer chance in exposing the scandal. If Wills hadn’t spotted the duct-tape or rechecked the basement door, if uniformed rather than plain clothes policemen had responded to the call, if the investigators hadn’t discovered the taping system at the White House, if Nixon hadn’t kept his recordings, then he might well have prevailed. Equally, despite Trump’s manifest abuses of accepted norms, he was only ousted at the ballot box.

Decades-old reverberations from Watergate contributed to the widespread distrust of government and the Washington “swamp” which enabled Trumpite rhetoric. The dominant Hollywood genre of the Seventies was the conspiracy thriller, responding not only to Watergate, but also to growing popular dissatisfaction with established accounts of the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. During the 1972 Democratic Party presidential primaries, the populist-racist, George Wallace, was shot and subsequently confined to a wheelchair. Films such as The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and, of course, All the President’s Men raised the alarm about eavesdropping and surveillance, and questioned whether the ordinary citizen could reliably trust any institutions. They certainly couldn’t believe self-serving politicians, the CIA or the FBI.

[See also: The stalled presidency of Joe Biden]

Yet it wasn’t only Hollywood fanning the flames. In the wake of Watergate – and the “smoking gun” tape – a visibly righteous Congress decided to let daylight into the work of the CIA and FBI. In 1975, Frank Church, the Democratic senator from Idaho, was appointed to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities. Huge amounts of dirty linen got aired: evidence of human experiments involving drugs and mind control, domestic surveillance of political and civil rights groups, and CIA involvement in plans for the covert assassination of foreign leaders.

A sub-committee was set up to look at the role of the intelligence agencies in the assassination of JFK. In 1976 the House of Representatives established its Select Committee on Assassinations. No longer confined to the murkiest margins of politics, conspiracy theories proliferated. Today’s obsessions about a deep state took their rise in the Seventies amid this climate of anxiety, though at the time such fears were just as pronounced on the liberal left as on the far right.

A further myth concerns the role of the press in bringing down Nixon. To be sure, investigatory work by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post kept the story alive during the election campaign of 1972, when Nixon’s cover-up was at its most effective. But it was not so much the Washington Post as the district judge, John Sirica, the special prosecutors and the Senate Watergate Committee who did the most to uncover Nixon’s wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the myth took hold. The press became pompously precious about its elevated status in a democracy, yet incongruously receptive to muckraking, leaks and tittle-tattle. Trump’s obnoxious war on the “mainstream media” and allegations of “fake news” exploited some legitimate fears about journalistic aggrandisement.

Until Trump’s arrival, the US had fixated on the wrong aspects of Watergate, notably Nixon’s obstruction of justice. Although it was the cover-up – and then his cover-up of the cover-up – which brought Nixon down, his real sins were meddling with the election process and his abuse of powers. 

Ironically, Trump’s baseless charges about Joe Biden’s stolen election amplifies a serious and enduring concern about the integrity of US elections, which has occasionally resurfaced since the Second World War. Incidents range from the disputed result in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, to the rigged Texas Democratic Senate primary of 1948, when the future president Lyndon Johnson’s win by 87 votes earned him the derisive nickname “Landslide Lyndon”: a sly acknowledgement that alleged last-minute ballot-stuffing had snatched an unlikely victory.

The Watergate scandal, in fact, involved two stolen elections: the long-festering wound of Nixon’s defeat in the presidential election of 1960, which lent specious justification to his determined interference in the Democratic primaries of 1972. In 1960 JFK – with Johnson on his ticket as vice-president – had won a controversial election against Nixon. Notwithstanding allegations of irregularities in Illinois, West Virginia and Texas, Nixon held back from openly contesting the election result. He did not want to appear a sore loser, although that is exactly what he was – as thin-skinned as Trump, albeit with oodles more guile. 

Nixon’s subsequent narrow victory in the 1968 presidential election depended on a three-way split in the vote, with Alabama’s former Democratic governor George Wallace, a southern segregationist, taking votes away from the official Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. In 1972 Nixon – now with all the advantages of incumbency, not least the opportunity to exploit the machinery of government – was taking no chances. His underlings meddled productively in the Democratic primaries of 1972. In particular a forged letter and other dirty tricks helped push his most feared opponent, Edmund Muskie, out of contention. McGovern, his easily defeated ultra-liberal opponent in the presidential election of 1972, was in some measure Nixon’s own pick.  

Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
The role of journalists Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein in Nixon’s downfall has often been overstated. Photo by Bettmann

Watergate encompassed a whole series of corrupt activities, including the setting up of a White House investigations unit, known as “the plumbers”, to undertake surreptitious and unlawful activities, and the use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass opponents. However, the most publicly egregious, conveyed as it happened in special news bulletins on primetime television, was the Saturday Night Massacre of 20 October 1973. As Nixon ran out of options to deny the dogged special prosecutor Archibald Cox access to the White House tapes, he decided his best course of action was to fire him. Nixon couldn’t directly dismiss the special prosecutor, who answered to the attorney general, Elliot Richardson. When ordered to fire Cox, Richardson resigned instead. Richardson’s deputy William Ruckelshaus wouldn’t fire Cox either, and resigned. Eventually, the next in line Robert Bork, the solicitor general, did the president’s bidding in order to avoid further havoc at the Department of Justice. 

The optics were appalling: television pictures of uniformed police sent to cordon off the special prosecutor’s offices accompanied news of the forced departures at the Department of Justice. It looked like the closest thing to a coup d’état the US had ever experienced – although Nixon’s was much closer to the stereotype of the authoritarian putsch than the ramshackle Trumpite insurrection of 6 January 2021. Nixon’s move backfired. The public vented its disgust in a flood of telegrams to the White House, and Nixon felt compelled to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.

Fourteen years later when the Supreme Court judge Lewis Powell – a “swing justice” in the ideological centre – retired, Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to replace him. As a jurist, the ultra-conservative Bork challenged notions of an evolving “living constitution” on which so many of the US’s liberal innovations were premised, including the legalisation of abortion in Roe vs Wade. The Senate’s resounding 58-42 rejection of Bork signified ideological revulsion, but also payback for his role in the Saturday Night Massacre.

The Bork nomination marked a turning point in the politicisation of Supreme Court appointments. Previously, the Senate confirmation process tended to be a sedate pavane. From Bork onwards there has been an ever-present danger that Senate hearings might become a battleground in the culture wars – as happened with unseemly bathos in 2018 when Brett Kavanaugh, responding to accusations of sexual assault, launched into a far-from-judicial televised tantrum.

After Watergate, legislators brought in measures designed to prevent a repeat of the Saturday Night Massacre. But the relevant portion of the Ethics in Government Act (1978) guaranteeing the tenure of the independent counsel was allowed to lapse after two seemingly vindictive prosecutions. The first was by Lawrence Walsh of Reagan’s Iran-Contra misdeeds, and then by Ken Starr of the Clintons’ involvement in the Whitewater land deal which, when it turned up nothing, bizarrely mutated into the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Under new regulations, a “special counsel” enjoyed less job security than the post-Watergate “independent counsel”. This seemingly minor technical provision came to matter enormously in the Trump era. Robert Mueller, the special counsel examining Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, operated under persistent threat of dismissal. As Trump could not fire Mueller himself, a rerun of the Saturday Night Massacre looked likely. In 2018 Trump eventually sacked his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from responsibility for the Mueller investigation, much to Trump’s fury and incomprehension; but the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, managed to resist ongoing presidential pressure to fire the special counsel. 

The Ethics in Government Act is one among a series of virtuous post-Watergate reforms that haven’t worked out as expected. Every so often since politicians have plucked up the courage to take on the lobbyists, only to see their good intentions overwhelmed. By restricting direct donations to parties, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act of 2002 inadvertently strengthened billionaire donors, “teavangelical” Tea Party activists and single-issue groups. With party organisations weakened, conservatives were soon directing spending towards primaries with the aim of unseating insufficiently zealous Republican incumbents. According to the political scientist Samuel Popkin, we are living through the “unintended consequences of a misguided ritual of purification”. The real long-term lesson of Watergate is a depressing one; that there’s no effective way to expunge lobbyists and money from a corrupt system. 

Worse still, does raw party tribalism mean that the future will bring the US more shameless Trumps, but no more disgraced Nixons? In 1974 Republican politicians were capable of telling the difference between right and wrong, and willing to admit it –albeit, in some cases, very late in the day.

The self-proclaimed conservative extremist Barry Goldwater served in the delegation of party elders that finally informed Nixon the game was up. But today’s party polarisation suggests that a president can commit Watergate-style abuses of power without risking his partisan base. Trump’s incitement of insurrection on 6 January 2021 seemed, when it was happening on live TV, to be a smoking gun. But his supporters were unmoved; and most Republican politicians – in public at least – have not abandoned him. Nevertheless, recent revelations of Trump’s reported attempts to cover up his phone conversations on the day of the insurrection inevitably remind us of Watergate.

Yet so close are the parallels between Trump and Nixon – the vindictiveness, the casual indifference to norms, the authoritarian instincts – that Trumpworld is sometimes mistaken for a return to Nixonland: a United States in which it’s as if Watergate never happened. Not quite.  

[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

A more-than-two-faced political operator, Nixon successfully courted both the hard right and the progressive centre of the Republican Party. As well as achieving rapprochement with the Soviet Union and an opening to China, ­Nixon’s administration advanced some ­precocious domestic policy initiatives: the Environmental Protection Agency, and proposals for a national system of health insurance and a negative income tax (neither proposal came to fruition). Today’s Trumpite ­Republicanism has inherited Nixon’s snarl, but none of the liberal aspiration which warred with his darker prejudices and ­Machiavellian cunning.

Trumpworld is Nixonland through the looking glass. Nixon’s cynical “southern ­strategy”, an opportunistic wooing of ­southern Democrats alienated by the ­insistence of northern Democrats on civil rights for black Americans, ultimately ­succeeded, but not in the way Nixon ­intended. Nixon envisaged Republican capture of the Democrats’ southern heartland, not a reverse takeover by ­reactionary southerners of a Republican Party whose roots lay in the more progressive north and west.

The constitutional drama surrounding Watergate was not entirely an all-white affair. On 25 July 1974 at the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment, Barbara Jordan, a black Democrat from Texas, delivered one of the most moving speeches in American political history. The “We the People” invoked in the founding constitutional document of 1787, she wryly remarked, excluded black women like her: “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton left me out by mistake.” But ultimately, by way of constitutional amendment, legislation and decisions of the courts, she argued, the liberal promise implicit in American ideals had become reality.

In a stunning show of magnanimity, Jordan proclaimed: “My faith in the constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the constitution.” Watergate – for so long a dispiriting saga of deceit and sordid intrigue – was partly redeemed by this moment of dignified affirmation.

Today the gulf between Democrats and Republicans is wider than during the ­Watergate crisis. Narrowing it will require empathy and generosity of the kind Jordan displayed in 1974, as well as her audacious alchemy: a fusion of unfeigned respect for traditional institutions with a sober – but unbounded – radicalism.

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews

[See also: George Orwell outside the whale]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special