Next year marks the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary episode in Western politics.
On the evening of June 17, 1972, a group of burglars penetrated the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. It was a presidential election year and incumbent Richard Nixon, as paranoid as ever he had been since first elected to the House of Representatives from California in November 1946, was concerned about the possibility of an “October surprise”.
Nixon had been outmanoeuvred in 1960 when he narrowly had lost the presidential contest to John F. Kennedy. The burglars, who were an offshoot of the White House Plumbers, created to combat leaks in Nixon’s administration, were aiming to penetrate the office of the Democrats’ national chairman, Larry O’Brien, on an intelligence-gathering mission.
Now they were the employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President, which made their Republican loyalties intriguing. The links of some to the CIA, sometimes as far back as the Bay of Pigs, made the burglars’ history even more beguiling.
The burglars were caught because of their own incompetence and an alert security guard, Frank Wills. Arrested by the DC police, the burglars and their handlers, including G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and James McCord Jr, appeared the next morning before a Republican judge named John Sirica.
White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler dismissed the incident as a “third-rate burglary”. But over time the links to the White House and to Nixon’s campaign emerged inexorably.
Nixon won the presidency that year against senator George McGovern in a landslide. But he lost the presidency in 1974 in resignation and disgrace.
At the Watergate complex today, visitors are invited to see where the crime occurred. It has become a tourist attraction, but the fact almost every scandal in a Western democracy since then has had the word gate appended to it shows how the impact of the burglary still resonates.
The greatest challenge for democracies next year is the yawning chasm of trust that exists between the governors and the governed. Overwhelmingly, this is because of the failures of those in elected office, whether they be found in North America, Europe or Australia. The lack of trust can be dated forensically to the Watergate burglary. For what emerged before the eyes, and later the ears, of shocked Americans was that a criminal conspiracy had been ongoing in the Nixon White House.
Following on the deceit of the Johnson administration over US policy in Vietnam, this shook the confidence of many average Americans to the core. Surely the president could not behave like one of the heads of New York’s Five Families? But all of Nixon’s expletive-laden rants were recorded courtesy of his own taping technology.
Nixon was not the first president to tape meetings and calls. In the Kennedy Library in Boston it is possible to listen to the 35th president and his brother and US attorney-general, Robert Kennedy, talk to governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi about racial tensions in that state. It is illuminating history.
But Nixon’s voice-activated system, in the Oval Office and elsewhere in the White House and the Executive Office Building, picked up everything and missed nothing. White House counsel John Dean was absolutely right when he told Nixon in March 1973 that there was “a cancer growing on the presidency”. The cancer, however, had deep roots and already had metastasised when Dean offered this telling description.
The cancer had grown because essentially Nixon and his senior aides, especially HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson, believed US law did not apply to them. So campaign finance laws were disregarded in 1972 and Republican coffers, awash with cash, were deployed for whatever nefarious purposes the political controllers saw fit. This certainly involved paying off the burglars for their silence.
Beyond the White House, other institutions of US government, including the FBI, were compromised. The scandal was indeed a third-rate burglary, but it was a first-rate political fiasco that became an enveloping cultural catastrophe, poisoning the public discourse.
The best recent book on the Watergate scandal is Michael Dobbs’s King Richard, which covers the period from Nixon’s second inauguration to the collapse of the cover-up. It is superbly written and is remarkably revealing for an episode one might have expected had been exhausted by historians. Beyond anything else, it demonstrates how the utterly reckless, such as Liddy, can bring the whole show down through their stupidity in the absence of discipline and a moral compass guiding the judgment of their superiors.
Americans were riveted to their TV screens as the Watergate committee, headed by folksy South Carolina Democrat senator Sam Ervin, probed the labyrinth of the Watergate conspiracy. It was mesmerising in its reach and led to the incarceration of several senior White House officials including Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson, and senior CREEP figures John Mitchell, Nixon’s former attorney-general, and Mitchell’s deputy, the wonderfully named Jeb Stuart Magruder.
The US judicial system emerged with great credit, thanks largely to Sirica. So, too, did much of the American media, especially The Washington Post and The New York Times. Indeed, the careers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were founded on the pavements of DC and worn shoe leather.
Along the way, the story changed as the Nixon White House obfuscated and misled.
Press secretary Ziegler made a contribution that has seeped into our political fabric. Answering a question from RW Apple of The New York Times at a press briefing, Ziegler repeatedly used the word operative to describe Nixon’s most recent statement on Watergate. What was the press to make of the president’s previous statements, Apple inquired. Zeigler replied that Nixon’s previous observations were now inoperative. Put simply, the White House press office conceded the president had lied.
Nixon never recovered. At Disney World in Florida, he protested he was not a crook. The American and international response was derision.
We are still living with the resulting distrust, born of the burglary. The lunacy of QAnon is impossible without Watergate, for Watergate amplified the doubts and suspicions about government that QAnon now exploits. The 50th anniversary of Watergate should never be celebrated but it certainly should be commemorated. It is a warning sign in flashing neon to all democracies and those who aspire to democratic circumstance that it is all too easy to slide into criminality under the pressure of political exigencies.