One consequence [of Watergate] was to tear down the majesty of the presidency. No nation could see a president who lied, spied, wire-tapped, spoke obscenities and plotted to thwart the justice he was sworn to uphold and retain its faith in the institution. Ensuing “Gates” – White House scandals – came as shocks, but no longer as surprises. If America today has turned against its government, equating incumbency with guilt and inexperience with innocence, you can trace that back to Watergate.
A pity, because one lesson of Watergate is that the lumbering machinery of government worked. More than the press, it was the much-maligned bureaucracy and Congress and the courts that broke the cover-up: the FBI that refused to lie down and play dead; the assistant attorney general, who refused to be the president’s patsy; the Senate committee that laid the groundwork for impeachment; the federal judge who pursued the higher-ups of convicted Watergate burglars.
Since then, government and judiciary have been increasingly politicized. One wonders if today it could prevent a coup from the top. For that, it is not generally realized, was what was in the making. More sinister than what President Nixon did was what he planned to do after winning landslide re-election despite Watergate. The files and tapes disclosed his plans to centralize power in a “super Cabinet” with White House agents like political commissars riding herd on the departments.
The White House would have its own intelligence and surveillance operation. The full power of government would be turned on Nixon’s enemies. “They are asking for it, and they’re going to get it,” Nixon told John Dean. “We have not used the power in the first four years, but things are going to change now.” The nation was saved from that by the government it disdained, and the press it despises, and by whatever providence it is that makes conspirators into stumblebums.
Nixon was smarter than Trump, and had long experience in national politics, and still was thwarted in his ambition. By that measure we need only a little of that providence Daniel Schorr mentioned to work on our behalf. Let us pray that it’s still in operation.
(Daniel Schorr’s report © National Public Radio. I am grateful to NPR’s Audience and Community Relations department for unearthing this transcript for me.)