In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.
As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”
The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.
The Nixon presidency, whatever else it might have achieved, ended up as a criminal conspiracy. Richard Nixon brought the nation he was elected to serve to the edge of a constitutional crisis. No person – and certainly no member of Congress, who after all has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution – should minimize what Watergate was about.
Woodward would later say, “Accountability to the law applies to everyone. The problem with kings, and prime ministers, and presidents, is that they think they are above it, and there is no accountability, and that they have some special rights, and privileges, and status. And a process that says: No. We have our laws and believe them, and they apply to everyone, is a very good thing. … I happen to believe in the essentially conservative idea that concentrations of power are unsafe and that those concentrations of power need to be monitored and held to account regularly. Watergate did that like nothing else that ever happened in this country.”
Those are words worth pondering, even for – and maybe especially for – those who have forgotten the significance of what happened 40 years ago this month.