September 14, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Watergate is associated with abuses but also with reforms– measures, the “Watergate-era reforms,” intended to go some distance toward solving the basic problems.  For scholars, law professors and the community of practitioners engaged with these reform enactments, the new biographies of Nixon now being published are irresistible. Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015); Tim Weiner, One Man Against the World (2015).  To borrow a sneering comment by Nixon, it is easy to “wallow in Watergate.”

One question that then comes up is: what in these narratives is the nature of the elemental “corruption” that led to Nixon’s downfall?  There’s mention of campaign money, in the discussion of secretive fundraising and the “hush money” that Nixon and his staff paid to the Watergate burglars in return for their silence.  But private money–brought from the outside to corrupt the government from within–is not the key, or a key, to the story.

Doubtless contributors to the 1972 reelection effort came under immense pressure to give, and from earlier works, where the attention to this issue is more systematic, it is clear that the people raising the money were more than willing to consider favors for those who agreed to supply it.  This was a problem that cut across parties and implicated politicians other than Nixon: “Candidates of both parties have eagerly dipped their fists into these corporate cash drawers—and presumably repaid the kindness in government favors.” J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1988).  Reform was in the air, and indeed the first such measure, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, came before the bungled burglary at the Watergate.

Moreover, much of the Nixon re-election campaign activity violated the law in place in 1974.   See, e.g. Victoria A. Farrar-Myers, “The Ripple Effect of Scandal and Reform,” in Watergate Remembered, ed. Michael A. Genovese and Iwan W. Morgan (2012), 129.  The issue was disregard of the law: the House Articles of Impeachment included the charge that the President had failed to execute the laws–the laws then on the books–that controlled the “campaign financing practices of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.”

The core, defining Watergate abuses involve the power of the state directed lawlessly outward, by those in office, to win policy battles, or rig elections, or settle scores with political enemies.  Government officials were not bullied; they seem to have done the bullying.  To Nixon’s way of thinking, he could put to use the his powers of the state to a good end, in the public interest: wear down his political opposition and enact domestic program, and more than anything else, clear the way for the “peace with honor” he imagined he was pursuing in Vietnam.  He was sure that other Presidents had done this sort of thing before him. It was rough stuff, “nut-cutting”, the will to win and persevere against enemies committed to his destruction.

The law was no impediment, as Nixon demonstrated during his 1968 election campaign.  Thomas relates how Nixon and his allies worked successfully to scuttle a budding peace agreement in Vietnam on the eve of the election—frantic that it would aid Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.  Johnson was furious.  Nixon denied any part in it.  Nothing more came of it.  So Nixon could proceed to his inauguration with his first Big Lie—and law-breaking—behind him, and retain some confidence that this was the way of the world.

Abuses like this—wiretapping, for example, and the political misuse of federal agencies—did not originate with his Administration.  One could say that never before had they so defined an Administration as it did his.  The tapes revealed that he routinely issued outrageous orders that his staff would wait out or ignore.  Thomas suggests that Nixon understood that the staff would balk and that he counted on their insubordination to protect him against his worst impulses.  Here he gives Nixon the benefit of the doubt, quite a bit of it.   Thomas does know, of course, that aware of what Nixon would be willing to entertain as options, those working for him could develop those options without his full or actual knowledge and still assume his tacit consent.

Also sobering in this account is the insularity of the White House team as it plotted its steps under Nixon’s direction and inspiration.   The staff knows that the President is unstable.  He drinks too much, or holds his liquor poorly. He is brilliant, but he is volatile; he is capable of rising to the better standards of the office, but as the tapes revealed, he can carry on like the head of a crime syndicate.  Walls are built to protect him–to allow him to keep to himself, as he preferred—and here and there, but not enough until it is too late, the senior staff and closer Cabinet members resort to furtive self-help remedies against the President’s dangerous instincts.

Major reforms to prevent future “Watergates” seem in this tale, and with the benefits of being to look back years later, to have marginal relevance and fading effects. Campaign finance controls enacted in 1974 have eroded. The Independent Counsel statute, passed to assure vigorous investigation without political interference of senior officials, came to grief, largely proven to be expensive, unproductive and itself vulnerable to partisan abuse.

The first of these reforms, while entirely defensible or debatable on its own terms, seems detached from the larger Watergate issue—the flagrant and illegal misuse of public power—and the second was concerned with attacking official cover-ups, often said to be “worse than the crime.” How to build effective institutional or legal defenses against a repeat of what is truly distinctive about “Watergate” has turned out to be surprisingly hard. What remains is the fascination with Nixon himself and the question of how to avoid electing another President too much like him.

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