Robert Reich on Lessons Learned from Watergate

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Robert Reich speaks with Michael Winship.

Robert Reich speaks with Michael Winship.

At the National Press Club, the citizen’s lobby Common Cause held a conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Watergate. Kicking off the conference was economist Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Clinton. In this audio exclusive at the event, Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship talks with Reich about the ways in which Washington has changed since Watergate, and how the influence of money continues to corrupt politics and exacerbate income inequality in America.

produced by John Light

At the conference, Reich said that despite the crisis, America’s response to Watergate was, in many respects, “a huge success… Watergate should be considered a moment when government showed its resilience.” In the wake of wrongdoing by the president and those closest to him, Reich argued, the rest of the government and the American people rose to the occasion in the way our democracy’s founders would have hoped. There was campaign finance reform, increased transparency and limits placed on presidential power but, he added, in recent years, much of what was accomplished post-Watergate has come undone.

Also listen to Michael Winship’s conversation with Russ Feingold at the same conference.


Michael Winship: We are talking with Robert Reich. And I first wanted to start by asking you where you were during the Watergate crisis 40 years ago. What were you doing?

Robert Reich: Well, at the beginning of the Watergate crisis I was in law school. One of my law school professors wanted me to come to Washington with him. He had been made solicitor general, and he wanted me to be assistant solicitor general and I accepted the offer. His name was Robert Bork. And then, after I accepted and before I came to Washington, he fired Archibald Cox, which made my life very difficult.

Michael Winship: As part of the Saturday Night Massacre —

Robert Reich: Exactly. And I thought, now, do I really want to come down to Washington and argue Supreme Court cases for the man who fired Archibald Cox? And to make a long story very short, I actually did spend about two years briefing and arguing Supreme Court cases in the Ford administration. That was my first job.

Michael Winship: What were you thinking as all this unrolled, as you saw these events, from break in to cover up to the hearings and —

Robert Reich: I thought at the time that it was the best and worst in America, that Nixon and Haldeman and others around him represented the most venal characteristics of American politics, that John Mitchell and others had no respect for the constitution. But at the same time, I saw John Sirica, the House Judiciary Committee, people who overcame partisanship and rose to the occasion, with honor and courage and integrity. And it seemed to me that the best of America would inevitably trump the worst of America.

Michael Winship: You said in many respects it was a huge success.

Robert Reich: It was. Watergate, contrary to the way history has viewed it, showed the strength of American institutions — not just our political institutions, but our judiciary, and also our media.

Michael Winship: And also, I think you also said that it was a great show of accountability.

Robert Reich: The people who had perpetrated these crimes — and I don’t mean just the burglaries; I mean the cover up, the attempts to essentially undermine the integrity of our entire democratic process — were brought to justice: Ehrlichman, Haldeman, many of those who participated in the cover up, and then ultimately Richard Nixon, who had to resign. Now, it’s still very controversial with regard to President Ford’s pardon, and we can debate that. But the point, and the important point, was that justice was done, accountability was served. People did not get away with it.

Michael Winship: I don’t mean this at all facetiously: Are there aspects of the Nixon presidency that you miss today?

Robert Reich: Well, I don’t miss the personality of Richard Nixon, or the values that I understand were Richard Nixon’s values in terms of what governing is all about. Certainly, you know, the Nixon administration did have some foreign policy successes. I think the opening to China was an extraordinary achievement. I think the Environmental Protection Act and the willingness to really make some headway on the environment was important. But the Nixon administration did leave an undeniable stain on the presidency.

Michael Winship: Were the American people better off? You mentioned some statistics in your opening remarks today.

Robert Reich: Well, the economy was, in many ways, a more equitable economy in those years. The top 1 percent of Americans by income took home about 9 to 10 percent of total income. Today the top 1 percent takes home more than 20 percent. The top 1 percent had about 25 – 30 percent of the nation’s total wealth. Today the top 1 percent has 35 – 40 percent of the nation’s total wealth. So, undeniably, we have gone into — we’ve become a much more — a nation of much more concentrated wealth and income, and also power. Because, don’t forget, income and wealth are correlated with political power. As the great Justice Louis Brandeis once said, we can have a democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in very few hands, but we can’t have both.

Michael Winship: So what happened? I know in this new documentary that you’re very involved with, Inequality For All, you talk about how in the seventies everything changed, so everything changed just after we went through this crisis in American politics. What changed, what happened?

Robert Reich: Many things changed simultaneously. For one thing, many of the technologies that had been developed in the second world war became commercially viable. Satellite communication technologies, cargo ships, container ships, all of that allowed the production process to be parceled out around the world to where everything could be done most cheaply. But, more to the point, we also had a political system that was less willing or able to respond to these changes, a political system that was willing to allow or encourage the demise of unions, that didn’t pay attention to the stagnation of the median wage, even as productivity continued to surge ahead, a political system that did not want to or wasn’t able to make the investments in education and research and development that needed to be made in order to allow the middle class to continue to prosper. And also, a political system that became obsessed with taxes and taxes on the rich, and thereby, because the rich began to have so much more influence in the political system, began to reduce marginal income taxes and make it impossible for the nation to continue the kind of investments we’d been making in the fifties and sixties, in everything from infrastructure all the way through higher education. So add all of these things up, and we saw a corrosion of our democratic political capacities to respond to structural changes in the economy starting in the late 1970s.

Michael Winship: How do we get that back, what do we do?

Robert Reich: Well, that’s probably the biggest and most important question that I certainly struggle with, and I think many others also struggle with. I think we can’t do it from Washington itself. You know, rarely do you have the capacity in Washington to do anything that the public is not ready to do. In fact, the converse is true. The only time good things happen in Washington is when a majority or a very large number of the public, and people who envision and understand what needs to be done, are mobilized and organized and energized to put pressure on Washington to make sure those things are done. And so we need — I mean I don’t know whether you want to call it a new progressive movement, or a revived Democratic party — I don’t even feel comfortable putting it in such partisan terms, because we used to have liberal Republicans: Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, Jacob Javits, many who understood the challenge of widening the circle of prosperity and providing equal opportunity. Well, we need that kind of courage today. We need that kind of political movement today.

Michael Winship: Even during the most rancorous time, during the Watergate crisis, there was still talk between the two parties, there was still a spirit of compromise, a spirit of being able to work together, and that’s totally vanished.

Robert Reich: It’s completely gone. It’s completely gone. I first came to Washington as an intern for Robert Kennedy in 1967. I was back in the 1970s, both in the Ford and in the Carter administration, and then I was again here in the Clinton administration, and I was an advisor in early stages of the Obama administration, and I’ve seen a remarkable steady decline in comity, in collaboration, in civility in this city. Partly, I think it’s because the Republican party has been taken over by a bunch of right wing fanatics. I don’t want to mince words here. I think that’s exactly what’s happened. I think the Democrats and Republicans have forgotten why they’re here and what the public wants them to do. Many Democrats also — I won’t say that they’ve been taken over by left wing fanatics. That’s not the case. But I think many politicians are most interested in their own chances of reelection rather than what is good for the country. And I know that even my students, my best students, who I would want and hope would go into politics, they are eager to go into public service, but they look at politics as essentially corrupt and dirty. Now, to me, that’s dangerous. If we don’t embrace and honor and get involved in politics, we cede democracy to those who are representing the worst or special interests, rather than the public interest.

Michael Winship: That’s another thing, you and I spoke a couple of years ago informally about how Washington, because we both were here in the seventies and here now, today, how money changed this city, I mean physically and philosophically how money has altered Washington.

Robert Reich: It’s a completely different city from what it was in the sixties and early seventies. In fact, Pennsylvania Avenue was kind of seedy. I remember, when I was at the Federal Trade Commission, lobbyists who would want to take me out to lunch — well, I said no to most of them, but if I wanted to be halfway civil I took them across the street to a place called Barney’s, a hamburger joint that was infested by cockroaches, and I never saw them again. Now you can’t find a cockroach on Pennsylvania Avenue, or in any restaurant. They’re all expensive, thick napkins and tableware. You know, this is a city that has gone from, I won’t say rags to riches, but from seediness to great wealth. The counties surrounding Washington are among the wealthiest counties in the nation. Corporations, including Wall Street, have poured a fortune into Washington, in terms of public relations professionals, lobbyists, people who will do the bidding of big corporations, and Wall Street and the rich. And as a result, the process of governing has been subverted in a very profound way.

Michael Winship: And what about campaign finance reform? We seem to — in the years after Watergate, we saw public financing in campaigns, we saw the creation of the Federal Election Commission, and now what’s happened? What happened to that?

Robert Reich: Well, it’s not a dead letter. I think people are still very interested and committed to campaign finance reform. But with Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission, that dreadful 2010 decision by a majority of the Supreme Court, we have opened the floodgates — or they have opened the floodgates — to big money in politics. The reforms that were started just before Watergate, and Watergate then encouraged even more of, in terms of the Federal Election Campaign Act reforms, have been all but eviscerated. We need to reverse Citizens United. We need to revive public financing of presidential and other elections. We need to really create a groundswell of public demands for these and for full disclosure of who is, or what institutions are providing money in our campaigns. This is one area that I have to be completely candid with you, I’m very disappointed with the Obama administration. The president has talked about campaign finance reform, but he did not take public financing in 2008. Again in 2012 he refused it. He set up his own super PAC, and now he’s set up an organization that is taking unlimited amounts of money and providing interviews and access to the administration and to the president as a quid pro quo. Well, some people say to me the administration has to fight fire with fire, and I understand that pragmatic view. But if you don’t take a stand somewhere it is impossible to stand anywhere, with regard to campaign finance reform.

Michael Winship: With media consolidation, and cutbacks in manpower, in money and time dedicated to investigative reporting, could the kind of coverage that Watergate got still take place today? Are we still capable of that kind of reporting?

Robert Reich: We’re capable of that kind of reporting, I believe. There’s still a lot of eager young journalists who would like to do investigative reporting, and who are willing to do it on a shoestring. My bigger concern is that we don’t have neutral arbiters any longer of news and information, such that the public will trust them. We have a very bifurcated system of information now. The right listens to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. The left has their own tribunes. But people now can very easily tune in to the voices and the people they already agree with, who confirm their every suspicion and their values. So without the neutral arbiters, without the Walter Cronkites or the great newspapers that used to be basically trusted, without what we used to call the establishment “mainstream press,” we run the danger of not being able to get word out to Americans about what’s happening.

Michael Winship: And also, I think attention is so fragmented now, there are so many — when we were living through Watergate you only had the three networks and public television and a couple of other stations, and now there are so many different sources of information, but not enough analysis.

Robert Reich: There’s less analysis. There’s more partisan information, more selective partisan information. There’s less trust, in every institution in our society. Not only Congress and the president, but the media and the judiciary. And without that trust, the public, it seems to me, is put in a very precarious situation in terms of the whole system of governance. What are you left with? You’re left with big corporations and Wall Street and billionaires, and why should anybody trust that they are going to act in the public interest? And this all comes at a time when the challenges that we face, whether they be climate change or nuclear proliferation or poverty, both at home and abroad, or any number of things, the challenges are so large and getting larger that unless we have some set of structures that people believe in and trust to act for all of us — and we used to call that government — then we’re powerless, in a way that I think should disturb all of us.

Michael Winship: A lot of people feel that Watergate was the beginning of the erosion of that trust, but you don’t necessarily feel that way.

Robert Reich: No. I think Watergate, if properly understood, should have been a monument to how powerful, resilient and honorable our system can be under great stress. Unfortunately, the cover up and the plot by President Nixon, and Ehrlichman and Haldeman and Mitchell and others, have overwhelmed the public’s memory of all of the strengths, and the strength of the institutions that counteracted Nixon and really reestablished the primacy of law.

Michael Winship: And finally, can you tell us about the documentary — you have this new documentary that’s coming out in the fall.

Robert Reich: Yes, it’s called Inequality for All. It will be coming out I believe the first week of September. I was very proud to be associated with it. I suppose you could say it’s sort of like An Inconvenient Truth for the economy, and I play the Al Gore character. The ultimate — perhaps this is a bit of a grandiose goal, but the ultimate goal is that it changes and kind of reframes public debate about the economy.

Michael Winship: Well, we all look forward to seeing it.

Robert Reich: Good.

Michael Winship: Thank you very much.

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