Veteran reporter James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, is at the center of the latest controversy involving the Obama administration’s treatment of the press, stemming from a story he broke in 2009. Rosen’s insightful review of Robert Bork’s posthumously published memoir of his involvement in the Watergate affair–given new relevance by the current scandals–is in the current issue of COMMENTARY and can be read here.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, America’s greatest living investigative reporter, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and said this: “I would not dismiss Benghazi. It’s a very serious matter.” Mr. Woodward recounted his own memories of Richard Nixon’s role in editing Watergate transcripts in order to mislead the public.
The Benghazi scandal is obviously not comparable to Watergate at this stage and may never be. Watergate, after all, involved the president being at the center of a criminal conspiracy. But not every scandal has to be Watergate to be serious; and a scandal need not lead to impeachment to be deeply problematic.
The mainstream media and liberal commentators have been claiming that the source that gave a tape recording of a campaign strategy meeting held in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville office had to be a GOP insider, and mocked the assertion that this constituted another Watergate. But today a Kentucky NPR outlet may have started to break the story open in a way that will give no comfort to McConnell’s Democratic detractors.
According to WFPL News, a member of the local Democratic County Committee is claiming that two members of Progress Kentucky—the group that has targeted McConnell before and which he claimed might be responsible for the incident—bragged to him that they were the ones who made the recording. Jacob Conway said Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison, the founders of Progress Kentucky, managed to get into the building where McConnell’s office is located and then taped the campaign meeting from the hallway, perhaps by putting a recording device at the door. The Democrat, who repeated his accusations on Fox News this afternoon, says he is speaking about the group because he feared their activities would be associated with his party.
If true, and reports are now also saying that FBI are pulling surveillance tapes of the building, then what we are talking about here is nothing less than a crime. Far from McConnell crying wolf, as Chris Matthews claimed yesterday, the Watergate analogy may actually turn out to be entirely accurate.
Is it ever okay to bug an opponent’s political headquarters? Even those who are too young to remember what happened when officials connected with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign unleashed an incompetent band of dirty tricksters on the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate complex, one would think the answer to that question is an emphatic no. While the Watergate scandal may have been more about the cover up than the crime, the line crossed by Nixon’s henchmen has always appeared to be a bright line that no one—not even liberals who can generally count on favorable media treatment—dare cross in this country. Yet someone or some group may have done so in Kentucky, and if that explanation of what happened at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville office holds up what follows will be an interesting test of the media’s integrity.
The provenance of the tape of a discussion during a meeting between the senator and his campaign aides at his office is currently unknown. Since this was not a fundraiser held at someone’s home where guests or waiters could have taped the remarks—as was the case when President Obama was taped talking about Americans clinging to their bibles and guns or when Mitt Romney dropped his “47 percent” bomb on his own campaign—there are only two possible explanations for the tape. One is that one of the senator’s high-level aides made the tape and sent it to Mother Jones magazine. The other is that one of the senator’s political opponents was running their own version of Watergate and found a way to bug his private conversations. While one cannot exclude the possibility that the former is the case, it seems unlikely. If the latter is true, then we’re going to find out whether liberals can get away with the sort of thing for which they once took down Tricky Dick.
For many people, Richard Nixon’s centennial is yet another excuse for trotting out Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and reliving one of the great triumphs of 20th century liberalism. Richard Nixon was the bête noire of a generation of Democrats and the process by which he received what they believed were his just deserts seemed to vindicate every epithet that had ever been thrown at a man who first came to the country’s attention as a dedicated opponent of Communism. As Politico notes, unlike other former presidents who have their fans, the tribe of Nixonians is pretty small. That’s because Republicans as well as Democrats associate him primarily with Watergate, rendering any good or bad done during a long political career to the margins of history.
Yet there is more to his legacy than the tapes and the break-in. The more one thinks about his record as president the less there is to like. That’s because the 37th president is someone who teaches us that character is a fungible quality in politics. The lack of it not only allows a president to violate the law and to misuse his power. It also can lead to the abandonment of principle with regard to political issues. Though there is always the temptation for conservatives to take up the cudgels for anyone liberals hate (a factor that helped Nixon retain the loyalty of many Republicans during his career) he also ought to be remembered as an example of a Republican who betrayed the voters in a vain attempt to gain popularity. That’s a memory that ought to haunt contemporary conservatives who may believe the task of governing requires them to check their principles at the door to the Capitol.
In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?
Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.
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.
There are two revelations in Jeff Himmelman’s attention-getting piece in New York magazine, published last night online, about longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s personal files and interviews on the Watergate scandal. It has been fascinating to watch the reaction to these new pieces of information–namely, which of the two stirred the hornet’s nest.
The first is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s source known as “Z” was actually a member of the case’s grand jury. The duo have always denied this, but when presented recently with the evidence, they confirmed it. The second is that Bradlee had shared the Doubt That Dare Not Speak Its Name: that Woodward and Bernstein had taken the soft clay of truth they had uncovered and molded it into a more visually appealing finished product. It was only common sense to harbor such doubts, given the claims being made, and certainly even more rational for the editor of the newspaper running these stories. But Woodward’s reaction has been a revelation of its own.