World

The legacy of Watergate

The scandal lingers in public life, 25 years later

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 16 1997
World

The legacy of Watergate

The scandal lingers in public life, 25 years later

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 16 1997

The legacy of Watergate

The scandal lingers in public life, 25 years later

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

Here we are,” says Maurice Lenders with a broad smile and a shrug of the shoulders. “You see—no guns, no microphones.” Lenders is an affable Dutchman who is taking a few minutes to show a visitor the scene of the crime. His company, a marketing firm called Urenco Inc., has the distinction— or burden—of occupying Suite 610 in the distinctive building at 2600 Virginia Avenue on the edge of the Potomac River in downtown Washington. It is part of the Watergate complex, a collection of concrete condos and offices that was designed in the 1960s to look futuristic but now seems oddly dated. And Suite 610, a pleasant but bland space, is ground zero of the greatest political scandal of the last half-century. It was there, exactly 25 years ago, in the early hours of June 17,1972, that police interrupted five men clad in business suits and rubber gloves in the act of breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic party.

By the time Watergate had run its course little more than two years later, a president had been forced from office—and modern political culture had been forever transformed.

There is no plaque on the sixth floor of the building on Virginia Avenue to commemorate the break-in. There doesn’t need to be. It was said of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed some of London’s most historic churches: “If you would see the man’s monument, look around.” The same could be said of Watergate. The details may have dulled with time (what exactly were the burglars looking for, and who was John Ehrlichman anyway?). But even a quarter of a century later, Americans, and others, are still grappling with the fallout from the scandal.

More than any other single event, it undermined public confidence in government and set the tone for a culture of confrontation between politicians and the press that endures to this day. It spawned an entire vocabulary of scandal (coverup, smoking gun, Deep Throat, “what did the President know and when did he know it?”). And it gave rise to one of the most tedious of modern political habits: tagging every purported episode of wrongdoing with the suffix “-gate.” Americans have endured Koreagate, Travelgate and a dozen more. Argentines, Brazilians, Israelis, South Africans and even Poles have lived through “gates.” Canada is not immune: British Columbia’s “Bingo-gate” led Premier Mike Harcourt to resign.

In fact, Watergate has fallen on hard times. Victors always write the history books, of course, and for years the reigning view was that it represented an unambiguous triumph for the forces of liberal openness over the Dark Side of political life—occupied by President Richard Nixon and the White House operatives who ordered the Watergate breakin. Nixon, who died in 1994, still has few defenders of his Watergate behavior. And the conspiracy that he and his closest aides embarked on to hush up their knowledge of the crime is beyond question. But after a quarter century the outcome no longer seems so clear, and the shadows over Watergate loom larger. These days, it is most

likely to be mentioned in the course of a lament about the culture of scandal and the climate of mistrust that haunts politics. The news media, which once basked in the glow of bringing down a president, now worry that healthy skepticism about people in public life has turned into rabid aggression. In a typical comment, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, bemoans the passage from “lapdog journalism to watchdog journalism to junkyard-dog journalism.”

he voice on the tape is low, heavy and all-too-familiar. It is early evening on Sept. 7, 1972, and Richard Nixon is in the Oval Office at the White House with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and aide Alexander Butterfield. The subject is Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat for whom Nixon reserved a special loathing, and the President casually orders his aides to plant a spy in the security detail assigned to protect Kennedy—and try to collect dirt on him. ‘We might just get lucky and catch this son of a bitch,” Nixon says. “Ruin him for ’76. It’s going to be fun.”

The tone is vintage Nixon: earthy, brutal, profane. Nothing did him in as much as the tapes of his private conversations that he made throughout the Watergate period with a voice-activated tape recorder. The key question was what he knew about the break-in and the subsequent effort to cover it up, and when he knew it. The tapes showed that he knew much more than he had admitted, and he knew it much earlier. They were key evidence for the investigators who unlocked the conspiracy, and led directly to Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9,1974. Now they repose in a vault on the ground floor of a modern, antiseptic building run by the U.S. National Archives just outside Washington. The archives’ “Nixon Project” holds 44 million pages of documents from his presidency and 3,700 hours of taped conversations. The holdings are so vast that archivists make new finds all the time: the Kennedy exchange was unearthed only in February, and is identified with clinical precision as conversation number 772-15.

The man who first admitted to investigators that Nixon had secretly bugged his own office was Alexander Butterfield, now 71 and retired in San Diego. He was one of Nixon’s closest aides, and has lived the past quarter century under the shadow of having taken part in something sinister and shameful. By the time Watergate erupted, Americans had long lost their political virginity; the assassination of John Kennedy, Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s had taken care of that. But listening to Nixon cursing and conspiring on the tapes tore the last veil from the presidency, an office that Americans, no matter their political allegiance, are taught to revere. Arguably, it has never recovered.

Butterfield has thought long and hard about Watergate, and even after 25 years he believes many Americans still fail to grasp that Nixon himself was fully responsible. “It never ceases to amaze me that after all the coverage of Watergate, so many people just don’t get it,” he says. “They buy his story that he just made an enormous error of judgment, that he shouldn’t have come to the aid of these zealous aides who perpetrated this

crime. People buy this stuff all the time.”

The truth, says Butterfield, is simpler.

‘Watergate was a result of Richard Nixon and the way he operated—100 per cent.

Nixon was the director of all activity in the White House.” And, he says: “I don’t think anything happened then that couldn’t happen again. It could easily happen again if you had another person like that in power. The press might smoke it out later, but they couldn’t prevent it from happening.”

Butterfield is still obsessed by Watergate.

Few who were in Nixon’s inner circle could escape it as details of conspiracy, perjury, money laundering, wiretapping and deception by people at the highest levels of government poured out.

The Washington Post led the news media in exposing the White House’s attempt to

conceal its involvement, turning its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into folk heroes. Some 30 people went to jail, including Haldeman and senior adviser John Ehrlichman, together known as “The Prussians” for their unflinching loyalty to Nixon. Some are unrepentant. Their poster boy is G. Gordon Liddy, leader of the break-in team who was the only conspirator to refuse to co-operate with prosecutors to the end and served 52 months in prison. Liddy is a star of right-wing talk radio, self-consciously notorious, driving around with a vanity plate that reads H20-GATE and issuing defiant declarations. “I have no regrets whatsoever,” he says of Watergate.

Others found God. Charles Colson, a Nixon adviser who specialized in dirty tricks against political opponents and helped set up the break-in team, became a born-again Christian and runs a prison outreach program in Virginia called Prison Fellowships Ministries. Jeb Stuart Magruder, now 62, was deputy director of Nixon’s re-election committee and served seven months for conspiracy to obstruct justice. He now lives in Lexington, Ky., where he is senior minister at First Presbyterian Church, a downtown congregation of 1,250 that builds homes for low-income people under the Habitat for Humanity program. He has made a new life for himself, and he says politely but firmly: “I do not want to talk about Watergate.”

What Magruder will talk about is his work with the church, which, inevitably, leads back to Watergate. “Going into the ministry was obviously part of putting my life back together, which was a major project,” he says. Did he succeed? “As well as anyone can. Nobody’s perfect. Theology teaches us that all of us are imperfect. That’s why you need a source beyond yourself.” Magruder studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who wrote about the relationship between power and morality. “Niebuhr understood how humankind was always fighting a battle between self-interest, pride and their faith. That’s what you’re doing all the time. Some just don’t know it.”

Most of the conclusions drawn after Watergate were less lofty. They are enshrined in laws designed to cleanse the American political system, to raise the ethical bar and ensure such events were never repeated. Some have been ineffectual; others have had consequences that their sponsors never imagined. A campaign finance law was passed in 1974, aimed at breaking the influence of wealthy donors over political parties. It has been undermined by court rulings and weak enforcement, to the point where political funding is more controversial in Washington than it was when Nixon, not Bill Clinton, presided over the guest list for the Lincoln Bedroom.

A law providing for independent counsels to investigate political controversies, and another one setting strict guidelines for ethical behavior in government, may have backfired. Critics say they led to the culture of scandal that has engulfed U.S. politics since Watergate. Instead of ensuring clean government, runs the argument, they became weapons in the hands of political partisans, feeding what analyst Suzanne Garment calls “the great American scandal machine.” In her 1992 book, Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, Garment described the infrastructure of rules, investigators, special prosecutors and news media as a permanent fixture that feeds off whiffs of wrongdoing and, in turn, needs fresh controversy to keep it going. The seemingly endless scandals dogging President Clinton—including Whitewater and the funding saga that has been dubbed, in time-honored tradition, “Donorgate”— bear that out. (One of the nicer ironies of Clinton’s woes is that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, served as a junior lawyer on the staff of the House committee that investigated Watergate. Now, the system of prosecutors and ethics laws created in that era is being used to torment the First Couple.)

The media, too, look considerably less heroic than they did in the aftermath of Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were role models for a generation, updated versions of a classic American type: the loner against the system. It’s been mostly downhill since then. These days the talk in U.S. media circles is about the rise of tabloid TV and the pursuit of public figures that too often slides into character assassination. The most widely discussed trend is so-called public or civic journalism. Its proponents are alarmed at public cynicism and disengagement from the political process; instead of focusing on exposing politicians, they stress finding solutions to social problems. Nothing could be further from the post-Watergate ideal of a press determinedly aloof from the political process. The new movement, says Washington media critic Tom Rosenstiel, is “part of the backlash against Watergate.”

Watergate lends itself to that kind of musing. It shook the entire American political system. But at bottom, its lessons may not be so complex. Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post wjio piloted the paper through that period, sums up with admirable simplicity the scandal that started in the unlikely surroundings of Suite 610 at the Watergate building. ‘What’s the lesson?” he asks.‘Why not the truth?;You tell lies at great, great risk. If Nixon hadn’t lied, he would have kept on as president. Not so hard to figure out, really.” □