Commentary Magazine


Watergate and After

To the Editor:

Leonard Garment in his article “The Guns of Watergate” [April] seems to suggest that President Nixon made a mistake in not destroying the Oval Office tapes. If this is Mr. Garment’s view, there is a disturbing immorality about it. Destruction would have involved more than “extremely cumbersome logistics.” Someone would have had to give the order and then explain why. While presumably the conversations themselves might have been shielded by claims of executive privilege, what of the speculation and the effort to draw inferences about their contents from the act of destruction? I suggest that more than not being an “unreasonable decision at the time,” it was the only decision open to the President of the United States.

It is interesting to speculate on the possibility that the absence of documentation supporting recent presidential decisions is one of the lessons learned from Watergate.

Avern Cohn
U.S. District Court
Detroit, Michigan

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To the Editor:

One need not agree with everything Leonard Garment writes to recognize that he is describing an important phenomenon. He calls it “prosecutorial politics” or “the criminalization of our public affairs.” In addition to the problems that Mr. Garment foresees, this style of politics represents what I believe is nothing less than an attempt to change our form of government. Without benefit of national debate or a constitutional amendment, we are in effect gradually exchanging our federal system, with its three independent branches, for a kind of half-baked parliamentary system. Instead of the present system, which has served us well for over two centuries, we appear to be drifting unconsciously toward an unplanned and untried system in which each house of Congress, unable to effect the resignation of the President and his cabinet by a “no-confidence” vote, can nonetheless render them ineffectual by means of continual investigations, accusations, seizure of records, and threats of criminal prosecution. Even if the investigations ultimately produce little of note and if no criminal convictions result, the administration may be weakened almost as much as if major crimes had been uncovered. The process more than the result is what causes the paralysis. . . .

Attempting to throw those with whom one disagrees out of office is one thing; threatening to throw them into prison is quite another.

David C. Stolinsky
Los Angeles, California

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To the Editor:

Leonard Garment might have noted, in reflecting on the lessons of Watergate, that the klieg lights in congressional hearing rooms burn with special intensity when both houses of Congress are controlled by the party that does not also have control of the executive branch.

It is, I think, no coincidence that the Iran-contra issue became such a source of contention between Capitol Hill and the White House only after the Republicans lost control of the Senate. . . .

One can still hear reference on network television to Watergate’s “Saturday night massacre.” . . . The easy acceptance of the term “massacre” to refer to the removal from office of three members of the executive branch on a Saturday in October 1973 reflects not merely political ideology, but a mindset powerful enough to distort language in its assault on the authority of an incumbent President. . . .

The challenge to an incumbent President from a hostile Congress is made easier when the powerful organs of our media, while seeming to adopt the “proper” adversarial role vis-à-vis the President, become megaphones for the members of Congress who hold in their hands the power to turn on those klieg lights. . . .

David R. Zukerman
Bronx, New York

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Leonard Garment writes:

Avern Cohn is confusing a retrospective analysis—which was my objective—with some kind of moral essay—which was not my objective. I did not say or suggest that the President made a mistake in not destroying the tapes; I said there were understandable tactical reasons why he did not destroy them. Whether a President is obliged to make and maintain a full documentary record for historians and criminal investigators is an interesting but different subject. Judge Cohn also overlooks my explicit discussion of the negative inferences that would be drawn from an act of destruction and that this played an important part in the President’s decision not to destroy the tapes. The crucial fact, I noted, was that an official investigation was pending in which the Senate committee made clear its desire to obtain the tapes even before a formal subpoena was served. This made what would otherwise have been a legal and unobjectionable act into a potential obstruction of justice and by itself might have led to the early initiation of impeachment proceedings.

Judge Cohn’s final comment is, in fact, one of my central propositions: that the pervasive prosecutorial atmosphere that has developed since Watergate has introduced an inevitable distortion into the executive branch record-making process. Fewer significant discussions take place at formal meetings, fewer writings are made, those which exist are frequently drained of detail and accuracy by fear of public disclosure, and many important discussions now take place in corridors, at parties, and in other informal places.

I was told by one of the highest ranking cabinet officers (at a private dinner) that when he testifies before a congressional committee, he is invariably made to feel like a criminal on trial and he conducts himself accordingly.

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