Katy Burns: Watergate? Are you crazy?
It was inevitable. In a short press conference Thursday, a downy-cheeked young reporter – couldn’t have been more than 35 – asked President Obama: How do you respond to these comparisons of you with Richard Nixon and Watergate?
The president smiled a bit ruefully. “I’ll let you guys engage in these comparisons. You can go ahead and read the history and make your own comparisons.” It was a classic and supremely logical Barack Obama response. Surely you can’t take seriously these absurd comparisons, is his implicit message. You must know the true horror of the huge steaming pile of presidential corruption that became conveniently known as Watergate.
Wrong response, Mr. President. Do not, ever, expect that people remember last week, never mind 40 years ago or more. And by “people” I mean in this case national reporters, who tend to run in packs and react en masse to shiny distractions.
The truth is that Americans’ relationship with history is fleeting, at best. We have been, since the country’s inception, a forward looking people. We discard the past as inconvenient, especially if it’s unpleasant, and we anticipate the future and the conquering of new frontiers.
Watergate is a distant memory. Richard Nixon, in a brilliant bit of personal reinvention and rehabilitation, became to some a respected, if not loved, senior statesman before he died. Almost everyone else implicated in that horrific chapter in our national history is either dead or doddering. “Watergate” has become shorthand for any old government scandal, however insignificant.
Sometimes it’s nice to be a person of a certain age, as they say. Especially a person of a certain age who back in the day obsessively followed the travails of Richard Nixon, the whole slow-motion train wreck he made of his presidency and the trauma he inflicted on the country in the process. It was a compelling drama, almost Shakespearean in its ultimate portrait of a man destroyed by his own paranoia.
And it was traumatic. Before it was over, Nixon and his enablers had corrupted almost every part of government they could influence. What came to notice initially was an inexplicable break-in at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party – housed in D.C.’s Watergate complex, thus the scandal’s moniker – which turned out to be an attempt by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, fittingly enough) to plant listening devices there.
By the time it ended, 40 members of the Nixon administration – including the nation’s chief law enforcement official, the
attorney general – had been sentenced to hard jail time. Nixon himself very nearly was one of them.
As the nation learned from exhaustive testimony before Congress – corroborated by hours and hours of secret tapes recorded by a vainglorious Nixon and wrenched from his control by a unanimous Supreme Court decision – actual felonies were hatched in the sanctity of the Oval Office. Enemies’ lists were compiled, revenge against perceived foes plotted.
A rogue’s gallery of shadowy individuals and thugs was financed through a slush fund to do the administration’s dirty work, namely to discredit Nixon’s political foes, and it was coordinated by the president’s closest advisers, who conferred regularly with the man himself.
Dealing with the many facets of what we call Watergate consumed the Congress of the United States, both House and Senate. It was a significantly less partisan era than today, and members of both parties seemed united in a search for truth. As data poured out, especially after release of the Oval Office tapes and the corruption they revealed – what conspirator-turned-truth teller John Dean memorably called “a cancer on the presidency” – there was astonishing agreement on nearly all sides that for the good of the nation the 37th president of the United States had to go.
A group of graybeards – distinguished senior lawmakers – confronted Nixon with the unpleasant fact that he would surely be both impeached and convicted. The president was finally persuaded to resign.
And Nixon himself very likely would have been the 41st person to be convicted for Watergate offenses had not his successor, Gerald Ford, granted him a complete and unconditional pardon when he took office. Ford felt – and many came over time to agree – that the nation had to be spared the final trauma of a former U.S. president on trial.
And this is what certain pundits and even some sitting lawmakers are trying to compare the Obama administration’s recent controversies to?
It is beyond absurd.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)