Watergate’s Lessons, Washed Away

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At moments, “The Lessons of Watergate” conference, held a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. by the citizen’s lobby Common Cause, was a little like that two-man roadshow retired baseball players Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson have been touring. In it, they retell the story of the catastrophic moment during the bottom of the last inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the Mets’ Wilson hit an easy ground ball toward Buckner of the Red Sox, who haplessly let it roll between his legs. That notorious error ultimately cost Boston the championship.

As The New Yorker magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman wrote of the players’ joint public appearance, ”It is as if Custer and Sitting Bull agreed to deconstruct Little Bighorn.” Or those World War II reunions where aging Army Air Corps men meet the Luftwaffe pilots who tried to shoot them down over Bremen.

So, too, in Washington, four decades after the Watergate break-in scandal that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Up on stage was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, one of the first victims of Nixon’s infamous “plumbers,” the burglars who went skulking into the night to attempt illegal break-ins — including one at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

“I want to add something to the history here that I’ve never told,” Ellsberg said, then asked. “Is Alex Butterfield still alive?”

Alexander Porter Butterfield, testifies Monday July 16, 1973 before the Senate Watergate Committee. (AP Photo/File)

A voice shouted from a corner of the room, “I’m over here.”

And sure enough, it was Alexander Butterfield, former deputy to Nixon chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and a pivotal if accidental notable in the Watergate saga. In July 1973, Butterfield let slip to the Senate Watergate committee that Nixon made secret audiotapes of all his meetings at the White House, a revelation that cracked the scandal wide open.

We never did hear the story Ellsberg wanted to tell; he decided he needed to clear it with Butterfield before he went public. The Common Cause event was filled with such slightly surreal moments, kind of like a Comic Con for history buffs and policy wonks. Just moments before Ellsberg spoke, I had been chatting with former Brooklyn Congresswoman Liz Holtzman, when Butterfield walked over, introduced himself and told Holtzman, “I was in love with you even when I was at the White House.” Holtzman was a prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee that in July 1974 passed three articles of impeachment against Nixon. He resigned less than two weeks later.

Many of them did hard time. Today, we couldn’t even get miscreant bankers to resign in exchange for their billions in bailouts, much less prosecute them for criminal behavior.

I was there in the hearing room that summer — briefly — while they debated one of the articles. My first TV job was working for public television in Washington, and while most of the time I was in the office or studio, a colleague lent me her credentials to see a bit of the action. The day Nixon quit, I was in Lafayette Park across from the White House taping promos for our coverage (somewhere I have a color slide of me working with our correspondent while Tom Brokaw teeters on an orange crate next to me, doing a standup). I returned to the park that night, after Nixon’s resignation speech, where a jubilant crowd celebrated his departure. When a garbage truck rolled past, they began chanting, “The moving men are here!”

Washington was a smaller town then and Watergate had become a cottage industry. Everyone you met had a rumor to spread or a story to tell. Books about the mess sold like crazy — everything from Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling All the President’s Men to transcripts of the White House tapes to collections of Watergate “recipes.” A friend of mine and I led Watergate tours and peddled bumper stickers on the side: one read, “Nixon Bugs Me, Too.” The other was the simpler yet eloquent “Impeach Nixon.” In those days, D.C. didn’t have cable television to entertain us. It didn’t matter: We had Nixon.

Yet make no mistake — for all the general hilarity (and remember, to many, Richard Nixon had been the butt of jokes for decades before; Watergate was just the ultimate punchline), this was a true constitutional crisis. The abuse of presidential power was staggering, from the soliciting of illegal corporate campaign contributions used for hush money and delivered by bagmen, to the illicit actions of the aforementioned plumbers — an operation, by the way, that traced its roots all the way back to the early months of Nixon’s first term. Combined with the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam — including the secret bombing of Cambodia and the violent squelching of antiwar protest — Watergate shook the public’s confidence in government as it hadn’t been since the bleakest days of secession and the Civil War.

But as several participants at the conference noted, the nation and its institutions did something about it. Committees in both the Senate and House, members of both parties cooperating with one another (!), conducted thorough investigations. In a more competitive, less consolidated news environment, a free press went on the attack (once the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post, Sy Hersh at The New York Times, Jack Nelson at the Los Angeles Times and others awoke a moribund White House press corps).

And the courts worked, from John Sirica, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who cracked down on the Watergate burglars and demanded the White House turn over those audiotapes, to the highest court in the land. As Fred Wertheimer of the reform group Democracy 21 remarked at the conference, “The Supreme Court understood that citizens had a constitutional right to protect their democracy from corruption.”

People went to jail, lots of them — even the former attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell. Think about that. Many of them did hard time. Today, we couldn’t even get miscreant bankers to resign in exchange for their billions in bailouts, much less prosecute them for criminal behavior.

The briefly restored public trust that followed Nixon’s departure started turning back to the cynicism that endures today almost immediately, when his successor Gerald Ford absolved Nixon of his sins with a full presidential pardon. In the years that followed, the erosion has continued. The bagmen have become the banks and Wall Street. Gridlock and intolerance have replaced bipartisanship. The efforts at campaign finance reform that followed Watergate – crushed by Citizens United and other court rulings — have dwindled to the point where, as conference panelist Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center observed, we are “shockingly close again to no contribution limits.” And with 9/11 and the war on terror, including ongoing drone attacks and threats to civil liberties, Morton Halperin noted, “The public is once again accepting an imperial presidency.”

During its conference, Common Cause presented what it called Uncommon Heroes awards to members of the House Judiciary Committee who served during the crisis, and saluted an Uncommon Heroes of Watergate Honor Roll, a bipartisan collection of “individuals from Richard Nixon’s Enemies List, members of the prosecution team, journalists and House and Senate Committee staff.” All could look back 40 years and be proud they took a stand.

But the Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable. Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track. Let’s hope not. Instead, four decades in the future, let there be changes for the good America can celebrate, so we don’t wind up like those old ballplayers on the road, reliving an unforced error, again and again.

Listen to interviews Michael Winship conducted at the “Lessons of Watergate” conference:
Robert Reich on Watergate’s Lessons
Russ Feingold on the Path to Campaign Finance Reform
Matea Gold on Following the Dark Money

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  • Tim McDonnell

    The real “enemies list” in the Watergate saga are the journalists and political aparatchiks who failed to dig beyond worn out Nixon cliches. Lazy and disappointing puff pieces like this are typical of the kind of superficial, spray-coated corporate infotainment that made the deeper Watergate reality possible (and successful) in the first place. Disappointing to see journalistic brands I once respected perpetuating this sort of misdirection, but the arms and pockets of the “McNews” establishment have only gotten longer and deeper since 1974. One point I do agree with wholeheartedly is that Watergate’s lessons have been missed by the vast majority of Americans and require urgent attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Wiley-Ma-Jd/702978195 Elizabeth Wiley Ma Jd

    What most people do not realize is that the Republicans themselves were looking for records that might give a clue as to who were the “secret government” referred to in many of the Free Press and other Underground newspapers that contained the printout of the 100 top owners, and stockholders of major corporations, especially military industrial. The lists were created by a Senate committee that was attempting to put Wall Street in order, and under control. Nixon kept saying The tapes, the tapes, why would he have done that if NOT to make sure people looked for the tapes.

    No one knew who could have taken the missing tapes, Everyone thought it was Nixon. It never made sense, why would he say tapes and then destroy some of them?

    If you watch the world according to Cheney, you will get a big shock.

    Cheney AND Rumsfeld BOTH worked for Nixon and had access to those tapes.

    Oh what a tangled wave people weave when they deceive.

  • mahatma kanejeeves

    Scalia & Bork killed the fairness doctrine, giving rise to hate
    radio. Gingrich & Luntz turned the hate radio audience into the
    useful idiots that make the country ungovernable. That’s the difference
    between then and now. The Stoopit is hyperorganized and activated. And
    Dancin’ Dave has Newt on week after week to help keep the insanity
    alive. The press is utterly culpable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leslie.parsley.1 Leslie Parsley

    I respectfully disagree with you about the role of the media during that era. It may have had its faults back then but there was a lot of courageous and honorable reporting. I was working for the media then as a researcher and the mantra that came down every day from management was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I believe this was coined by Bill Bradley but not 100% positive..

    Sadly, as time has passed, the Woodwards of yesterday have become the Woodwards of today – lazy, timid, and shallow. Likewise, once courageous news publishers have lost their moxie and instead of backing their best, they fire them at the very hint of controversy.

    No guts, no glory, and an uninformed public.

  • Lisa Murray

    Good Afternoon Bill

    “But the Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable. Many believe it will take another
    scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track.”

    A scandal, not so much, We’ve had quite a few since. Apparently not natural crisis, we’ve had Tsunami, Haiti’s Earthquake, Katrina’s Levy Break, FAMINE & Failed Farming out WEST 2 years running, Sandy STORM and Global Warming. We’ve had numerous Genocides. There’s been Wars & Revolutions too. We citizenry organize REALLY well. Even so, our Government is corrupted owned by Wall Street Banks, Corporations, Super PACS and Monsanto’s GMO who even finagled a Treaty from our Supreme Court giving them the proprietary rights over ALL SEEDS. ONE GUY OWNS THE FOOD SUPPLY OF THE WHOLE WORLD—ALLthe Seeds Patented—REALLY? Despite fervent outcry to President Obama to overturn that right, to Strike Section 735
    from the 2013 Continuing Resolution he signed it anyway. It abuses citizens Constitutional Rights for the Supreme Court to HEAR Argument. There was none;
    this Section 735 was added at the last minute on the Back of a Bill. Its MAIN purpose is to help Monsanto avoid what GMO needs—U.S. regulation! I’m not sure WHICH is worse—Monsanto’s ownership of ALL food, or the pretax Banks now take from ALL Federal Payments. Yup, that was slipped in on the back of bill last Summer. That extra money out isn’t obvious because it’s a hidden pre-tax but it’s definitely coming out of every Federal payment. Yes, it means your Federal payment is being taxed twice.

    SO, how do ordinary citizens get THIS KIND of government back and make it accountable?

    I’m beyond angry. I eat primarily a Raw diet/Fish and take care of myself but I didn’t know I was ingesting Genetically Modified Organisms. Yeah, Monsanto owns our genetically modified Soy and Corn crops. But that’s not enough, they’re testing other crops & salmon & they’ve taken over India’s main crops of corn, Maize, okra, and their Cotton crops. They’ve absconded corn in Latin America via slick blank sacs. Know how he sold this idea to OUR government and Monsanto investors? He told them his crops would feed the world. Worse than Salt Sugar & FAT in our Foods is GMO and its toxic compounds glyphosate and POE-15! University of Caen, France has PROVEN from a study of nine Roundup-like herbicides that the substance the most assessed by regulatory authorities glyphosate is toxic but the most toxic compound is POE-15! Once those glyphosate and POE-15 toxins are released/inject themselves into our Food they can NEVER be captured.

    So we can INSIST UPON EATING/BUYING ONLY 100% CERTIFIED ORGANIC GMO-FREE FOODS but beyond that how do ordinary citizens get THIS KIND of government back and make it accountable? I’d love to hear ideas!

    You read Matt Taibbi. He wrote a magnificent living biopic on the topic Three
    Strikes Life in Prison. A former Juror replied, “Several years ago I sat on a jury which convicted a man for taking $20 from a woman that he felt she owed him. We acquitted him of all but one charge, petty theft. The evidence was marginal but the defendant took the stand and admitted to taking the $20 so we couldn’t let him off. I didn’t return for the sentencing but heard later that it was a third strike and he was given life. I’m glad to hear about the program at Stanford. It serves two purposes: protecting the rights of people and teaching the students about the ‘other’ part of society.” A Canadian reader replied, “even though crime on the whole is going down in Canada, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper apparently doesn’t read the statistics, and is busy implementing his new agenda of “tough on crime”. It sounds a lot like the “3 strikes you’re in prison” law in America. Harper’s new crime agenda would put aboriginal Canadians in prisons longer; Even though there are only 3% of Canadians who are aboriginal, the current prison population has 18% who are aboriginal men, and 42% who are aboriginal women! Like America, the legal system caters to people who are wealthy, and there are prejudices towards aboriginal people in Canada.”

    Bill you reminded us Gideon v. Wainwright established the constitutional right of
    criminal defendants to legal representation, even if they can’t afford it. The Court ruled there shouldn’t be one kind of justice for the rich and another for the poor, but the scales of the American legal system and other legal systems STILL tilt heavily in favor of the privileged/wealthy. Just last week Lindsey Lohan avoided Jail for the 5th time for serious crimes! This paucity of Justice is juxtaposed in Matt Taibbi’s article with terrific examples of Stanford Law graduates assisting the prison clients who are caught up in the quagmire of the Three Strikes/Life in Prison system. So I’ve been trying to UNDERSTAND the cesspool the Supreme Court has become, how it no longer protects its Citizens and HOW a Monsanto (GMO) can in daylight curry a Trade Agreement giving it proprietary rights to ALL seeds. That approved the Three Strikes Law when it decided to divorce itself from its responsibilities to the weakest among us. What we’re SEEING is the subsequent breakdown of all civility. It’s weird, Jules Verne SAW all this in his time (16th century) and folks called him CRAZY. As always your essays are deeply thought provoking and much appreciated. Again, I’d love to hear ideas! Thanks!

  • Tim McDonnell

    Very well said… thanks for your thoughtful (and valuable) counterpoint!

  • Dwight Haskins

    I am a federal government whistleblower who lost his job for blowing the whistle at the FDIC to protect the public. I have been trying to get my story told by the media but so far have been ignored. Shockingly, I am unable to get any journalists at the New York Times or Washington Post to investigate my story. Shame on Bob Woodward if he has allowed the White House to chill his interest.

    Here is my book just published, to inform the public how justice has been denied in my situation to protection the White House administration.

    http://www.amazon.com/American-Betrayal-ebook/dp/B00BKZ02UM

  • rain,adustbowlstory

    The one remaining scandal from this era is that the last time I checked, it’s extremely difficult to get hold of the videotapes of the Watergate Hearings. They used to be held by the Nixon Library, I believe. Why shouldn’t those tapes be everywhere? On Netflix, on youtube, in their entirety.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.t.keeney Rachel Tedards Keeney

    If Ford’s pardon of Nixon brought back cynicism, it was only among those who salivated like Pavlov’s dogs at the thought of puting Nixon in prison. He was impeached, he resigned, it was enough; a trial would only have kept the blood flowing and further drained the nation. Ford, a decent and honorable person, gave us a chance to heal and we blew it — our fault, not his. And I write as someone who has not voted for a Republican since Ford.

  • Lisa Murray

    Got an Idea from Ben Franklin, replying to a woman who asked him, ‘Mr. Franklin, What have you wrought?’ He replied, “A REPUBLIC Madam, if you can keep it.” We’ve LOST our Republic and we must get it back. On THAT NOTE, the second Idea comes from Attorney Lawrence Lessig’s TED Talk—CHANGE incentives by introducing A Statue calling for Small Dollar Funded Elections/Citizen Funded Campaigns—some already being introduced are Fair Elections NOW Act; American Anti-Corruption Act; John Starbane’s The Grassroots Democracy Act and Lawrence Lessig’s The Grant & Franklin Project. EACH of these if we support it can fix this Corruption by spreading out the Influence (IDEA Less time fundraising from top 1.o% INSTEAD fundraising more widely across the Country speaking to ALL sides of us so that we RESTORE the idea of “dependent upon the people alone.” The 1,452% increase in Salary for Senate/House members to become a Lobbyist is a Reality but in spite of that to fix the Corruption & SHRINK K Street Influence House Members Republicans Democrats the Left the Right House ALL of Us must BE CITIZEN’S. Lessig sites States having adopted these measures to CHANGE INCENTIVES saw dramatic changes in behavior! For example, Connecticut gave up Large contributions saw 78% of Elected Officials took small contributions ONLY. These are not PERFECT Solutions but if MOST OF US ACT and get a Statue passed we’ll see a tipping point form that moves us back in the direction of “dependent upon the people alone.”

  • Lisa Murray

    Got an Idea from Ben Franklin, replying to a woman who asked him, ‘Mr. Franklin, What have you wrought?’ He replied, “A REPUBLIC Madam, if you can keep it.” We’ve LOST our Republic and we must get it back. On THAT NOTE, the second Idea comes from Attorney Lawrence Lessig’s TED Talk—CHANGE incentives by introducing A Statue calling for Small Dollar Funded Elections/Citizen Funded Campaigns—some already being introduced are Fair Elections NOW Act; American Anti-Corruption Act; John Starbane’s The Grassroots Democracy Act and Lawrence Lessig’s The Grant & Franklin Project. EACH of these if we support it can fix this Corruption by spreading out the Influence (IDEA Less time fundraising from top 1.o% INSTEAD fundraising more widely across the Country speaking to ALL sides of us so that we RESTORE the idea of “dependent upon the people alone.” The 1,452% increase in Salary for Senate/House members to become a Lobbyist is a Reality but in spite of that to fix the Corruption & SHRINK K Street Influence House Members Republicans Democrats the Left the Right House ALL of Us must BE CITIZEN’S. Lessig sites States having adopted these measures to CHANGE INCENTIVES saw dramatic changes in behavior! For example, Connecticut gave up Large contributions saw 78% of Elected Officials took small contributions ONLY. These are not PERFECT Solutions but if MOST OF US ACT and get a Statue passed we’ll see a tipping point form that moves us back in the direction of “dependent upon the people alone.”

  • http://twitter.com/williambanzai7 williambanzai7

    Stay tuned folks…