Why Watergate Matters


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.