A Watergate message: public opinion did in Nixon, and it is gnawing at Trump
More and more Washington is reliving the Watergate era. People wake up wondering what did he say or do now. They read the newspaper or watch TV in disbelief. But this time is worse because there is more at stake. The questions during Watergate were, what happened, and would Nixon survive? The questions now are, will democracy survive – and if so, at what cost?
Some important Watergate lessons are in play again: 1. The move to impeach Richard Nixon was the result of enormous public pressure – a tidal wave of public opinion – that forced a reluctant Congress’s hand. Concern for a new tidal wave is why Donald Trump calls the news media the enemy of the people. His aim is to intimidate the messenger and to manipulate public opinion. It is not a new tactic, Nixon and others have tried it. 2. Only a few news organizations did consistent, original reporting during Watergate. By and large the news media, especially TV news, did next to no reporting until Watergate could no longer be ignored. What will happen this time? It looks like we can still count on the Washington Post and New York Times for independent, original reporting. Will any of what is left of the traditional news media join them? And how will the new, nonprofit online organizations do?
Watergate started when five men were arrested at Democratic headquarters about 2 A.M. on June 17, 1972, while Richard Nixon was running for re-election. They had bugging equipment, cameras, a walkie-talkie, and thirteen crisp, new $100 bills in their pockets. They made no phone calls but two lawyers showed up at the police station to represent them. It was a neat political mystery story right from the start. Within two days the Washington Post was able to link the break-in to figures in the Nixon White House and his re-election campaign. The next two years were spent connecting the dots.
Nixon tried to limit the investigation to the details of the break-in, knowing that otherwise many repugnant, illegal activities would come out. He said publicly that the break-in was politics as usual and that his political enemies were out to destroy him. Privately he immediately started a cover-up. He had the leaders of the CIA falsely tell the acting FBI chief that looking into some areas would jeopardize national security. He hid or destroyed evidence, paid hush money to the burglars, and had aides lie. One piece of evidence destroyed was 18-1/2 minutes of a taped conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff days after the break-in, when they discussed Watergate. When the time came, obstruction of justice was the lead article of impeachment against Nixon.
The FBI found out early on that $114,000 went from the re-election committee into the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. That was a double whammy for Nixon – a direct link between his campaign and the burglars and a glimpse into illegal campaign contributions as well. One of Nixon’s main fears, and hence a reason for the cover-up, was that the investigation would uncover what was for that era vast illegal campaign financing.
Discoveries of wrongdoing often had to do with Vietnam. It was revealed that weeks after Nixon became president, the White House got its own detective to do jobs the FBI or police could not do legally. Among the first was snooping on a soldier who disclosed the My Lai massacre, a terrible atrocity, in hopes of finding behavior that would taint his credibility. Later Nixon created a group called the plumbers, with the job of finding and stopping leaks to the press. Reporters, columnists and government officials had their phones tapped. Break-ins aside from Watergate were committed or planned. One, bungled like Watergate, was at a California psychiatrist’s office, in search of files on Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. People ask why there was a burglary at the Democratic headquarters, and one answer is: Why wouldn’t there be? That’s the kind of work these folks did.
The Vietnam war was four years old when Nixon took office promising to end it. Instead, he doubled its length and tried to make the growing antiwar movement seem disloyal, even criminal. FBI infiltrators encouraged some protest groups to become violent when they otherwise might not have. (The Justice Department filed 75 cases against antiwar groups and lost all 75.) Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia, a neutral nation, but he kept it secret from the American people in violation of the law. He also had the military invade Cambodia.
Those were some of Nixon’s activities during the Watergate scandal, by no means a complete list. He almost got away with them because others in government turned a blind eye, or even assisted. That is a lesson for today as well. Leaders in the Justice Department kept information away from investigators, narrowed the scope of the probe, told Nixon aides what was being revealed so that they could try to stay ahead of the prosecutors. In the House of Representatives, Democrats, who had a majority, helped Republicans block an investigation by the banking committee that would have been damaging to Nixon early on. Five of 22 Democrats on the banking committee voted with all 16 Republicans against giving subpoena power to their chairman, Wright Patman, and that wrecked the probe. In the Senate the 1973 Watergate hearings were like no other event in American history, week after week of riveting, incriminating testimony on TV all day, a shared experience for millions of people. But when the hearings were over the Senate was done, pretty much. The Senate majority leader, a Democrat, said it was time to move on from Watergate, as did almost all Republicans.
That left only the Watergate special prosecutor’s office, set up in May 1973, to investigate Nixon, and led to one of the most raucous events in politics ever, the Saturday Night Massacre. Trying to finally cut himself loose from Watergate, Nixon asked his attorney general at the time, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson refused, so Nixon fired Richardson. The chief assistant to Richardson also refused and he too was fired. On October 20, 1973, the third in line at Justice then fired the special prosecutor.
Immediately after that, millions of letters and telegrams descended on Capitol Hill, and impeachment proceedings officially began. Even then, however, the chances were good that Nixon would win out. The Post’s lead reporter on Capitol Hill, Spencer Rich, told me at the time that there was no real sentiment for impeachment, that most members of the House and Senate felt it would be more dangerous for them personally, for their careers that is, to vote to impeach than to vote against.
Over the years the press at large has gotten praise for its coverage of Watergate and Nixon. The press dethroned a president, it is said. In reality you could count on one hand the news organizations that did consistent, original reporting as the scandal was uncovered. They were: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. Mary McGrory, the Washington Evening Star columnist, brought elegant writing and hard-nosed logic to Watergate coverage and won a Pulitzer prize for it, but there was only one of her and her role was to explain the news, not report it. Other contributors hardly existed. There was no network television coverage until the story could no longer be ignored, except for a brief flurry by Walter Cronkite.
If the Justice Department aided Nixon improperly, and if most of Congress wasn’t interested in moving against him, and if most of the press did a poor job – then what turned things around? Something big must have happened. The impeachment drive was forthright and powerful when it came. For many Watergate is a story of how the American political system was a success, not a failure or a near failure. A good news story, you could say.
It was public opinion that happened.
The Saturday Night Massacre, as mentioned, unleashed millions of letters and telegrams on Capitol Hill. It also caused independent, apolitical leaders such as leading academics and constitutional scholars, to speak out strongly. At first even that was not enough to jump-start Congress. Some members were serious about impeachment, but not many. And then, even as individual members were mulling it over, along came the clincher: monumental tax fraud by Nixon.
Testimony in a Watergate civil suit had led to an investigation of Nixon’s taxes, and it was revealed that in 1970, while president, he paid $789 in taxes – less than a person with $4,400 in taxable income would pay. The next year he paid $878. Nixon had taken an enormous, illegal deduction and was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in amends. Tax fraud was easy to understand. He couldn’t call that politics as usual, or blame his enemies. Most Americans had little understanding of Watergate, and they weren’t concerned enough to dig deeply into it. They had their own lives and issues.
Resentment of Nixon grew until it became clear in Congress that it would be less risky to vote for impeachment than against it. Nixon’s approval ratings, already low, plummeted to 20 or 21 percent in the Gallup poll. Nixon’s underpayment of taxes and the use of federal funds to improve his personal property (such as his San Clemente, California, estate) were suggested as grounds for impeachment but not included in the final three motions against him. At that point, they didn’t have to be. The public had turned on Nixon, forcing Congress’s hand. Not all members of Congress needed pushing by public opinion. But many did.
So what is the main message of Watergate for today? It is a timely one: Public opinion, once aroused, is enormously powerful. Concerted public opinion tends to be unifying – poor and rich, liberals and conservatives were outraged by Nixon’s tax fraud, for example. Politicians fear public opinion; they try to keep it at bay, to manipulate it, to get it on their side. Sometimes it overwhelms them but there is always the possibility that it won’t. That is why back during Watergate and again today there has been so much spin and attempted spin. And why there is a new phrase in American life, “fake news,” a ruse to ridicule and discredit honest reporting. Trump’s attacks on the press need to be seen in this light. Like Nixon, he is an experienced liar. Like Nixon, his taxes, if revealed, could (at the least) turn more people against him. The battle for public opinion is under way. Again, the spotlight will be on what Congress does.
There is an important second message as well. The argument can be made that it was the work of only a few news organizations that kept the Watergate cover-up from succeeding. Hardly any, but enough to keep the story alive. There was a bumper sticker in the DC area in those days that said, “God bless the Washington Post.” Need it be said? An aggressive press is vital in a democracy.