Commentary Magazine


Topic: Watergate

The Obama Scandals and Republicans

Republican lawmakers are receiving lots of advice–some from people sympathetic to the GOP, some less so–on the political dangers posed to them by the scandals engulfing the Obama administration.

It seems to me the proper approach is fairly obvious. Don’t get ahead of the facts. Don’t talk about impeachment or declare this or that scandal to be worse than Watergate (which placed the president at the center of a criminal conspiracy). Don’t allow opposition to President Obama to slip into hatred for him. Don’t come across as zealous partisans. And don’t become so obsessed by scandals that they set aside the hard and necessary work of recalibrating the GOP, which still faces significant problems in terms of its appeal to a changing electorate. Remember the words of Chekhov: “You don’t become a saint through other people’s sins.” 

At the same time, Republicans should of course pursue the scandals through the appropriate investigative channels, including congressional hearings. They have an obligation to do so in the name of the public interest. Those on the center-left and hard left who are urging Republicans to play down these scandals, in order to avoid a repeat of the Clinton-Lewinsky blowback, may have something other than the GOP’s interests in mind.

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Republican lawmakers are receiving lots of advice–some from people sympathetic to the GOP, some less so–on the political dangers posed to them by the scandals engulfing the Obama administration.

It seems to me the proper approach is fairly obvious. Don’t get ahead of the facts. Don’t talk about impeachment or declare this or that scandal to be worse than Watergate (which placed the president at the center of a criminal conspiracy). Don’t allow opposition to President Obama to slip into hatred for him. Don’t come across as zealous partisans. And don’t become so obsessed by scandals that they set aside the hard and necessary work of recalibrating the GOP, which still faces significant problems in terms of its appeal to a changing electorate. Remember the words of Chekhov: “You don’t become a saint through other people’s sins.” 

At the same time, Republicans should of course pursue the scandals through the appropriate investigative channels, including congressional hearings. They have an obligation to do so in the name of the public interest. Those on the center-left and hard left who are urging Republicans to play down these scandals, in order to avoid a repeat of the Clinton-Lewinsky blowback, may have something other than the GOP’s interests in mind.

Perhaps it’s worth restating the obvious: Scandals and criminal investigations always harm an administration. Ask yourself this question: Do you think that Bill Clinton and Democrats, in looking back at the 1990s, are glad that Lewinsky scandal occurred? Of course not. The same goes for Watergate, Iran-Contra and countless minor ones. Political scandals are not good for presidencies–and they are not good for the country. But if they occur, they need to be pursued.

Republican lawmakers should approach the unfolding scandals in a manner that is sober, measured, purposeful, and rhetorically restrained. Follow the facts. Connect that dots when necessary–and don’t be afraid to say when the dots don’t connect. Resist the temptation to twist facts to fit into a preferred narrative.

All of this is easier to understand in theory than it is to execute in practice. But if Republicans do so, they’ll serve themselves, and the nation, well.

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James Rosen on Robert Bork and Watergate

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.

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.

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Bob Woodward on Benghazi

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.

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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.

What we know right now about the lethal attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and the subsequent cover-up is serious enough. And one cannot help but feel that if the truth is finally revealed, it will reveal even more damaging things about the ethical grounding of the Obama administration. Whether the truth is finally unveiled is an open question. That’s why we have things called investigations. And unfortunately for the president, but fortunately for the truth, they are proceeding.

Stay tuned. 

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NPR Outlet: Liberal Group Taped McConnell

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.

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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.

The principle here is one that both parties ought to condemn not just because it is a crime to record a person without his consent in this manner but also because acts of political espionage are a direct attack on our democratic system.

For much of the last three years we’ve heard non-stop complaints about the abusive nature of Tea Party rhetoric and the way the political right has supposedly dragged political discourse in this country down. The mainstream media has played this tune often and loud in spite of numerous instances of liberal incivility. But what has happened in Kentucky isn’t merely rude; it is a sign that the left has taken political warfare to a completely new level of aggressiveness.

Progress Kentucky is, after all, the same group that made offensive and racist tweets about the ethnicity of McConnell’s wife. Now they may have engaged in the kind of political espionage that brought down the Nixon administration. Its time for the same liberal outlets that have been talking about the Tea Party’s alleged offenses to stop ignoring McConnellgate.

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The Media Can’t Bury McConnellgate

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.

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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.

Liberal talking heads are trying to pooh-pooh Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s complaint that the left has engaged in dirty tricks against him and are instead trying to divert public attention to whether it was appropriate for a politician and his advisors to discuss in private whether a potential opponent’s record could be against her. The opponent was, of course, actress Ashley Judd, who at the time of the conversation was actively considering challenging McConnell.

According to this view of the incident, we are supposed to be shocked and outraged that a senior legislator would sit and listen as his aides happily contemplated doing opposition research against a rival. To say that McConnell’s people were confident they could take down Judd is an understatement. The phrase that one person in the conversation uses to describe how easy it would be to find foolish statements by Judd—“a haystack of needles”—will, no doubt, enter the country’s political lexicon regardless of the source of the tape. However, liberals seem to be saying that the only decent thing for McConnell to do was to leave the room or perhaps even fire those chuckling about Judd’s personal foibles.

This is, of course, hypocrisy on an Olympian scale. After a year in which Barack Obama’s campaign spent much of its time trying to falsely portray Mitt Romney as a heartless murderer and tax cheat, Democrats are in no position to cry foul about Republicans discussing the possibility of working over Judd.

But the real question here is not liberal hypocrisy about McConnell. The issue is the practice of taping private political conferences between a candidate and his staff. Unless one of McConnell’s aides went rogue and gave up his boss to, of all publications, the far-left San Francisco-based Mother Jones, what happened in Louisville was a criminal act of the sort that American politicians were supposed to understand had been conclusively placed beyond the pale by Nixon.

McConnell has earned the resentment of liberals both for his skillful leadership of Senate Republicans and by being an unabashed advocate of conservative principles. But since when does that give opponents the right to tape his private conversations? Had a similar incident happened to Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or any prominent Democrat, the mainstream liberal media would be leading with this topic in every broadcast and front page with each story drenched in Watergate analogies instead of the focus on a candidate “plotting” against a rival, as has been the case with accounts of McConnell’s tape.

No matter what turns out to be the true story behind this tape—if indeed we ever do find out the truth—liberals and conservatives should both be condemning the taping of private political conferences in this manner. A consensus that these sorts of tactics could never again be tolerated followed Watergate. But if McConnell’s enemies can get away with it, no party and no individual will be safe from political espionage.

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The Lessons Of Nixonian Politics

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.

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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.

Evaluating Nixon’s presidency is hard work for anyone who wants to talk about anything but Watergate. But as much as Nixon provided liberals with a target, it should also be remembered that he gave conservatives an example to avoid too. That’s because Nixon’s principle domestic achievements as president were important milestones in the descent of America into the malaise of big government liberalism.

While his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency is most often cited as an interesting historical irony, it was just one of many excursions into the creation of the superstate that conservatives of our own day are struggling to cut back. Nixon’s willingness to use his war powers was seen as an “imperial presidency” by his liberal opponents, but the same tendency led him to breach every principle of conservative governance to impose wage and price controls on the economy. That disastrous experiment testified to Nixon’s lack of any political principles as much as Watergate exposed his lack of a moral compass when it came to political espionage.

Nor were his betrayals limited to domestic policy. His trip to China and the establishment of ties with Beijing are rightly praised as a bold stroke that discomfited the Soviets. But the abandonment of his anti-Communist roots was not limited to that initiative. It was Nixon’s championing of détente with Moscow that kept the evil empire alive for longer that it should have. It was also primarily responsible for the dark decade of Soviet expansionism and proxy wars around the globe that followed. Far from being a foreign policy genius, as some would have it, his cynical realpolitik approach did as much damage to the world as his liberal economic schemes did at home.

Nixon isn’t the Republican who abandoned conservative ideas when he got personal control of the federal leviathan. But there is no better example of the consequences of such folly. Nixon’s presidency will always be seen as a tragic failure because of his resignation in disgrace. But even if we leave that aside, it ought to remain a toxic model for future generations of conservatives.

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Paterno and the Curse of Self-Righteousness

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.

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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.

Self-image is often decisive in determining our behavior. If we see ourselves as working on behalf of a good cause, that makes it easier to condone misbehavior we think is not that important in the big picture. But while it is possible to make a case that defending one’s country in wartime can require lying, as well as all sorts of things we would label crimes in other contexts, the problem is leaders often conflate their careers with that of the fate of civilization.

In my lifetime, I have seen presidents of the United States who believed the preservation of their administrations was more important than telling the truth about either political dirty tricks or personal misbehavior. In each case, we can tell ourselves that neither the Watergate break-in nor the Monica Lewinsky affair was as bad as Jerry Sandusky’s raping children, and we’d be right. Indeed, there is no comparison between these incidents.

But that should only heighten our disgust with Paterno. In his case, his conduct appears to have been based on the idea that a football program’s good name and the prestige of a university was more valuable than the lives of children. Rather than allowing his achievements to overshadow his failings, we must understand that his complicity in Sandusky’s ability to go on abusing kids was rooted in those accomplishments. Paterno should stand as a warning to anyone in a position of authority that their self-image as good guys can never justify cutting moral corners.

We may never be able to fully understand the evil of Sandusky or the moral blindness of Paterno. But the pattern here is not all that unique. The willingness of leaders to believe their good works are so important that nothing — even the truth about their personal conduct or those of their associates — can be allowed to tarnish them is a standing invitation to wrongdoing.

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Watergate and the White House Leaks

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.

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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.

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All the Journalists’ Men

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.

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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.

On its face, the more damaging disclosure would seem to be that Z was a member of the grand jury. A case built on witnesses is only as strong as the credibility of those witnesses, and this story has two prominent sources: Z and “Deep Throat,” the FBI’s Mark Felt. Yet this year we have seen the credibility of both witnesses suffer greatly. Felt’s suffered from the publication of Max Holland’s Leak. Holland confirms that, in the reporting of the Watergate affair, unrelated details were forced into arranged marriages to tidy up the storyline, and that Felt was actually a disgruntled employee attempting to tarnish the reputations of those above him so he could replace them at the top of the heap. His selected leaking was designed to impugn the reputation of acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. And there was more, as Andrew Ferguson writes in COMMENTARY:

The notes Woodward took at this meeting with Felt, now in a university archive, differ markedly from the account that Woodward gives in All the President’s Men. “Many sentences [in the book] are moved around and the progression of Felt’s remarks rearranged,” Holland writes. “Occasionally the meaning of what [Felt] said is substantially changed….The account in the book contains words, phrases, and sometimes whole sentences that are not present in the type-written notes at all.” Here, then, is what we’ve been dealing with all these years: an inaccurate account explaining an erroneous newspaper article containing facts supplied by a double-dealing source who knew them to be untrue. A messy business, journalism.

But even with Felt’s integrity reeling, our heroic journalists still had the other source: Z. Woodward and Bernstein had always assured the public that Z was not a grand juror–that would have landed everyone involved in serious legal trouble. Just as significantly, in 1973 Woodward, in Himmelman’s description, “put Z’s information on the same level as Deep Throat’s. That’s a pretty high level.”

But now it seems Z’s cooperation on the story was unlawful, and that Woodward and Bernstein had been misleading the public about her true identity. That would call her credibility into serious question. In response, Woodward changed his tune. “This is a footnote to a footnote,” he said, dismissing her importance. (Politico quotes Woodward and Bernstein now saying Z was of “little consequence.”)

The controversy around Z, in the wake of Himmelman’s story, is being treated as a footnote itself, however. Logic would dictate that this piece of information is the true blockbuster. Instead, however, everyone involved is consumed by the human drama of Bradlee’s doubts. Bradlee is a mentor and something of a father figure to Woodward; Woodward was a mentor to Himmelman. And now there is a triangle of mistrust. Privately, to Himmelman and Bradlee, Woodward reacted as though there is now a knife in his back. Publicly, he has blamed Himmelman, because that is the easy thing to do. He lashed out at Himmelman after imploring him not to publish the fact that Bradlee once had doubts about Woodward’s story. But the knife is Bradlee’s–if there is a knife at all.

It turns out Woodward’s credibility isn’t faring much better than that of his sources. He says Bradlee’s doubts were fleeting, or never really there. He told Politico that there’s another interview in which Bradlee says he doesn’t doubt the veracity of the story. But he’s grasping at straws–Bradlee confirmed his doubts again more recently, in the runup to this story and in discussions about whether those doubts should be mentioned at all.

But then he drops the hammer: “It’s almost like the way Nixon’s tapings did him in, [Himmelman’s] own interview with Bradlee does him in.” Woodward, in his panicked paranoia, reaches for his vanquished enemy, because that victory is what still defines him. Later, he adds: “He can write what he wants, but his own transcript undercuts his premise. It’s one of those Perry Mason moments.”

Woodward, searching for comparisons, conjures a fictionalized television hero, who pieces together the evidence that the show’s Hollywood scriptwriters make sure fit neatly into place just as the viewers at home brace for the episode’s denouement.

Woodward is more right than he knows. This whole story is a lot like that–and Bradlee knew it.

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