Echoes of Watergate in the Trump Era

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with members of Congress and U.S. law enforcement about crime and immigration issues, specifically the MS-13 gang, at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

From Nixon to Reagan and Clinton to now, the whole process has become tawdrier and steadily more routine.

There is little comparison between the current imbroglio with the special counsel and congressional committee investigations and the Watergate controversy of 1972–74. Watergate arose when there had been no serious discussion of impeachment of a president since the outrageous assault on Andrew Johnson by radical reconstructionist Republicans in 1868. The whole proposition was practically unthinkable and widely held to be a disgraceful procedure that would severely embarrass the country in the world and imperil the smooth functioning of the U.S. government. It was thought that any upheaval in the administration and Congress so radical could be dangerous in the Cold War, which President Richard Nixon had just succeeded in starting to deescalate, having extricated the United States from the Vietnam War while preserving a non-Communist government in South Vietnam. There has never been any conclusive evidence that Nixon personally committed any illegalities, but he bungled the investigation, uttered a number of serious public untruths, and members of his White House entourage and the Republican National Committee undoubtedly engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Nixon was of the old school of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, when he was a prominent congressman, senator, and the vice president, that held that national security, (a concept that was only originated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his “Great Arsenal of Democracy” address to the nation on December 29, 1940), if faithfully invoked, justified almost any act by the president. The political dangers of the Watergate intrusion—it was forced entry but was not a break-in, as nothing was broken nor anything stolen or vandalized, and the president knew nothing about it until after the fact—were not immediately recognized. Any trial would be in the District of Columbia, where approximately 85 percent of the people and presumably all the jurors are Democrats, and from the first day the country’s leading trial lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, was acting for the Democratic National Committee.

Nixon, after one of the most successful four-year terms in the country’s history, was unbeatable in the 1972 election. He took over a country in 1969 that had 540,000 draftees in Vietnam, two hundred to four hundred coming home in body bags every week, that was racked by race and antiwar riots all over the country every week, and that had no serious foreign conversations in progress with the Soviet Union, in the Middle East, nor any formal exchanges with the People’s Republic of China. After four years, the riots and skyjackings (which were frequent for a time), were stopped, the United States had withdrawn 95 percent of its forces from Vietnam and the Communists had not gained in the country, the United States and USSR had signed the greatest arms control agreement in history with SALT I, (which incidentally restored U.S. nuclear superiority by ignoring multi-independently targeted reentry missiles—ten missiles per ICBM). The crime rate had fallen, inflation had been stopped, segregation ended without recourse to the mad court-ordered busing of millions of children around metropolitan areas to get racial balance, relations had been spectacularly opened with China, the peace process in the Middle East had begun, the Environmental Protection Agency had been founded and the end of conscription had been announced. Only Abraham Lincoln’s one full term and the first and third terms of FDR had rivalled Nixon’s achievement. The Democratic reaction to the initially trivial Watergate entry may be assumed to have been fueled by a partisan fervor torqued up by the utter hopelessness of the Democratic prospects in 1972,with a far-left candidate with a far-left program.

The Democratic National Committee, the offended tenant in the Watergate intrusion, pushed all the buttons it could, and there were a good many subpoenas and much press speculation and some dubious performances under oath even before the election, which Nixon won by the greatest plurality in American history, eighteen-million votes. It could only grow as a problem after that, unless Nixon took draconian measures to cut loose anyone who could be legally vulnerable and maintain a firewall between himself and the defense. Historical mind-reading is almost always a bad idea and unlikely to yield anything accurate or useful. The reasons for the shortcomings of the Nixon strategy appear to have been an infelicitous combination of having won “the last election, and the best” by such a landslide; complacency about the ambit of national security initiatives, insouciance about the ability of the Democrats and their media friends to raise mischief and hell in the DC courts and national media, and some mysterious failure in the president’s idiosyncratic reasoning to swerve clear of what soon took on the nemesis character of a preordained personal national tragedy. It was also a travesty, a false demonization of a very good president and a false elevation of a fraudulently righteous and perfervid, almost regicidal mob in the press.