Forty years on, the lessons of Watergate still ring true
OPINION:What the Dreyfus Affair was to France and the Profumo Affair to Britain, Watergate was to the US
SUNDAY MARKS the 40th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington DC. A third-rate burglary poorly conceived and executed, it ignited what became known as the Watergate scandal, shook the US political system to its core, and resulted in the resignation of an American president.
Amidst the plethora of political scandals before and since, why should we commemorate a break-in by a group of amateurish burglars at a political party HQ? The fact is that Watergate was more than just a failed burglary. It became the defining political scandal of an era with resonances felt even to the present day.
What the Dreyfus Affair was to France and the Profumo Affair to Britain, Watergate was to the US. Following in the wake of America’s involvement in the Viet Nam war, the race and civil rights crises and the counter-culture conflicts of the 1960s, Watergate dealt an almost fatal blow to America’s faith in itself and its system of government.
And yet, despite the corrosive effects of these accumulated conflicts, Watergate showed ultimately that “the system worked”. The US’s much-vaunted “separation of powers” (often criticised for its tendency to produce policy gridlock), ultimately salvaged the system’s integrity, with both the judicial and legislative branches playing key roles in reining in an executive branch grown too powerful under Richard Nixon’s “imperial” presidency.
The US system of checks and balances proved its capacity to do what it was established to do: to hold the powerful to account.
Watergate marked the coming of age of the US Fourth Estate. Without the dogged investigative reporting of the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein, the story would have remained an item buried in the Post’s Metro News section. Watergate challenged the Nixonian doctrine of executive privilege. Despite the failure of many leaders to learn from history, Watergate did produce a wider recognition of the need for executive power to be publicly accountable.
Nevertheless, the many abuses of executive power since have been considerable. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the running sore of Guantánamo Bay are testaments to this persistent executive hubris. Yet the spirit of Watergate reportage ensured these issues have undergone intense media and public criticism. We need look no further than our own shores to see the effects of unaccountable, unregulated executive power.
Most importantly, Watergate proved that it is not the original crime but the attempt to cover it up that leads to the transgressor’s undoing. Politicians who show early contrition often receive the public’s forgiveness, while evasion raises the public’s contempt, a cardinal rule many politicians fail to recognise.
Another legacy, curiously, is a linguistic one. Watergate is now very much part of our lexicon. Not only does the term conjure up notions of skulduggery, but “gate” has become the default suffix of any remotely corrupt or salacious event. Many linguistic infelicities emerged from Watergate. The terms, “modified limited hangout”, “non-denial denial” and “expletive deleted” are all Orwellian verbal atrocities from the period that have passed into folk memory.
For those around during the 1970s, Watergate left many impressions. Few will forget Nixon’s mawkish resignation speech in August 1974 or his assertion that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. “Deep Throat” passing secret information to Bob Woodward in covered car parks, the “down-home” yet dignified presence of Senate Watergate Committee chairman Sam Ervin and the highly charged Frost interviews are all enduring images of the era. In line with the law of unintended consequences, what started out as an amateurish burglary became the major political scandal of the era. Even the seedy, low-budget Howard Johnson motel nearby where the burglars staked out their target symbolised the whole tawdry nature of the break-in.
To Nixon apologists, Watergate was about Nixon being targeted by the liberal media, while the actions of Kennedy and Johnson who engaged in similar skulduggeries during their presidencies were ignored.
To most, Watergate is a textbook example of the effects of overweening, unaccountable power. The hubris that led to Nixon’s downfall had the hallmarks of a classic Greek tragedy. In true tragic fashion, it was Nixon’s taping of his own Oval Office conversations that provided the evidence for his eventual downfall.
Forty years on, Watergate remains a telling reminder of the dangers of attempting, like Icarus, to fly too close to the sun.
Paul McElhinney, a lecturer in Carlow Institute of Technology and former official in the Department of the Taoiseach, worked in Washington DC in a think tank based in the Watergate Office Building