Why Watergate Matters

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Jay Rosen has a shrewd essay up about (among other things) how Watergate became a sort of Confirmation Myth for the religion of journalism, an analysis that rings true for those of us who have enthusiastically bitten into that particular cookie. Among other virtues, the piece pokes fun at the ritualistical fealty to "good old-fashioned shoe leather reporting," and introduces the much-needed acronym GOFSLR.

Watergate, like the dozen or two other historical events or humans (Vietnam, Hitler, the gulag, Munich, etc.) that have cut through the white noise of current events, is interesting to contemplate solely as an abstracted symbol and political analogy. The potency of the very word helps explain, for example, why we're always searching for someone worse than Nixon, and affixing the suffix "gate" to every half-assed Washington scandal or minor-league journalistic triumph.

But there's a concrete and even pressing public-policy reason why Watergate matters to the U.S. of A. in 2005. Much of George Bush's governing philosophy has been shaped by men (especially Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) whose worldviews are anchored at least in part to the various scandals (and reactions to same) of the mid-1970s. Like Wolfowitzian democracy-promotion, Sept. 11 gave fresh oxygen to their long-held conviction that post-Watergate reforms "tied the hands" of the CIA and FBI, put the Executive Branch on the defensive, and handcuffed America's ability to get her hands a little dirty in the name of making the world a safer place for democracy.

The tensions this approach has created lies behind nearly every controversy of the post-Sept. 11 Bush Administration—Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, the PATRIOT Act, politicized intelligence, extraordinary rendition, fudged WMD arguments, increased secrecy. Here's Ford Administration vet Cheney, talking to Cokie Roberts in January 2002, as excerpted in my column on Watergate blowback from a year ago:

In 34 years, I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job….One of the things that I feel an obligation [to do], and I know the president does too, because we talked about it, is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors. We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years.

Watergate matters because in addition to being a central pillar in journalism's self-mythology, it's also a symbol for the crowd who watched the Executive Branch get humiliated from 1972-76. They want to restore the White House's leeway with the Means, in order to more vigorously pursue the Ends, and they want to portray opponents to this project as being insufficiently hard-assed in Our Generation's Struggle. I guess, like people used to say about Abu Ghraib, they think the unconscionable abuses of Nixon, Hoover et al were mostly a case of a few bad apples. Or maybe a couple of broken eggs.

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  1. Putting aside Matt’s lame swipe at the Journalistic Mythology of Watergate (sorry Matt, your iconoclast is showing), he’s got a point.

    I’m reminded of that ’80s movie, “Hiding Out” with Two and a Half Men star, Jon Cryer. Remember the right-wing nutball teacher? “Nixon was a great man who was betrayed by his countrymen.”

  2. That was a remarkably lazy, unself-aware essay. Far more questions begged than answered. For example, if Watergate reporting is what justifies special constitutional protection for the press, and if the heroic journalist myth of Watergate is what generates support for these protections among the public, then why were those protections written into the Constitution 200 years before?

    And isn’t “investigative journialism and exposing corruption is a political act” just another way of saying “the facts have a liberal bias?”

    And why is the author so determined to cast the issue of whether journalism or government brought down Nixon as a zero sum game? He points out that Judge Sirrocca and the Committee brought out a lot of the facts, as if this somehow reduces the role of the Washington Post. Does anyone seriously believe there would have even been a Watergate Committee without Woodward and Bernstein’s work?

    This piece reminds me of Michael Young’s posts about Lebanon, in which the discussion of objective facts that matter to the reader take a back seat to some inside baseball, partisan catfight I neither understand nor care about.

  3. Shouldn’t it be GOFSLR, not GOFLSR?

  4. Kevin — Right you are, and thanks; my mistake.

    madpad — That was Rosen’s swipe; I just offered a lame summary (and assent).

  5. America’s ability to get her hands a little dirty in the name of making the world a safer place for democracy

    Is such a power enumerated in the Constitution? Perhaps the state is grown too large.

    The domestic abuses of Hoover, Nixon, and the rest of the broken apples are cause to limit and check the Executive. Responsibility for foreign abuses of the same bad eggs must fall in part upon the Congress and people who believe it is proper for USA to meddle around the world.

  6. Come on guys admit it. It’s cooler when the gov can get up to dirty tricks. All of the best movies, TV and books are based on that simple fact. A squeaky clean gov that adhered to the letter of the constitution would be disastrous for popular culture.

  7. You obviously haven’t read my screenplay about the honest, ethical planner.

    C’mon, it practically writes itself!

  8. A screenplay about such a mythical beast as an “honest, ethical planner” – as if such a thing actually exists!

    I predict such a film would be a wonderful slap-stick production in the tradition of Blazing Saddles’ Governor Le Petomane and Hedley Lamarr.

    Or to quote the Guinness beer guys, “Brilliant!”

  9. I see it now.

    “All the President’s Menschs”

  10. If I start writing screenplays about a virtuous government scientist, please, shoot me!

  11. Upon further reflection, it really is too bad that a few hotheads and well-meaning sadists have go and ruin the idea of a benevolent government. There couldn’t possibly be a structural flaw in a system that gives power without responsibility, could there…?

    thoreau: Just for the idea, I’m thinking about Tasing you. Any more weird screenplay notions and you’ll get a photo of Ann Coulter eating a popsicle.

  12. So joe, after all this planning — when are you finally going to do something?

  13. Oh, we hire people for that. 😉

    Actually, I’ve “done” quite a bit.

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