The Lessons of Watergate
Caricatures of the evil Nixon don’t help us learn how to counter abuses of power.

President Richard Nixon at a White House news conference, March 15, 1973


Fred Thompson

The Washington Post recently sponsored a panel discussion marking the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. The event featured players in that drama of long ago, so I was there, along with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee (the Post’s editor at the time of Watergate and the guest of honor at this discussion), John Dean (President Richard Nixon’s counsel, who eventually testified against him), and others. I think it is fair to say that GOP stalwarts were in short supply. However, the partisan aspects of those events of four decades ago — and the devastation they wreaked on the Republican party — fade in my memory as I try to give an honest evaluation of that important time in our history.

I always approach invitations to revisit the “lessons of Watergate” with an assortment of feelings. From a personal standpoint, it was certainly a major event in the life of one 30-year-old “country lawyer” from Tennessee. I was appointed Republican attorney for the Watergate Committee, and I soon found myself in the middle of the political scandal of the century, which ultimately led to the resignation of the president of the United States and the imprisonment of scores of Republican operatives and officials, including Attorney General John Mitchell, whose certificate of appointment had been on my wall.

In a strange coincidence, I had resigned as an assistant U.S. attorney on the day of the Watergate break-in. Like many Americans, I gave president Nixon the benefit of the doubt until it was no longer possible to do so. The offenses of the president and those around him have had an effect upon the body politic and our political institutions that persists to this day. Today, we compare every malfeasance to Watergate.

In Watergate gatherings and seminars, one can always expect certain things. Most or all of the bad things that happened will be attributed to Nixon’s paranoia and hatred of his enemies. The press will be praised as having stood between us and Armageddon. Someone will say, in effect, that we were on the verge of losing our civil liberties — spying on peaceful anti-war demonstrators and such. There are certainly elements of truth to all of this.

But the soldiers in the Watergate wars overstate their case, happy to add layer upon layer of Shakespearean pathos and drama to the events, while failing to add any critical thinking or historical context, pushing instead the same, tired conventional wisdom. Victory not only has a thousand fathers, it also lends itself to a single heroic narrative. For me the more significant Watergate lessons — and the more relevant for today — are broader than what has been pushed on the American public these past four decades.

Watergate was in large part about the arrogance of power. It demonstrated, once again, that Lord Acton was right. Power corrupts. Older men, full of themselves, and their youthful, ambitious subordinates thought that the ends justified the means and that they could get away with illegal wiretappings, break-ins, and the targeting of their political enemies because they controlled the levers of power.

Congress and the courts asserted themselves and proved them wrong. The Founders knew what they were doing when they separated and balanced governmental powers. Federalism with limited, delineated federal power was an important part of that equation. These are lessons that are important and useful.

Today, the office of the president, along with the entire executive branch of government, grows with each administration, bringing less accountability and more opportunity for improper activity. Today, unelected bureaucrats tell states what they can and cannot do about the enforcement of their own well-established laws. Federal regulations run every aspect of American life, even as the Supreme Court regularly slaps them down. These actions on the part of the executive branch are not criminal, but neither were many of the arrogant and foolish things the Watergate crowd did. At issue here is not just a few bad individuals. At issue is the way power can be used and abused. Watergate was not the first time the darker side of human nature manifested itself, nor was it the last time.

Consider the issue of the inherent powers of the presidency, especially with regard to national security. It was activities in this area — before the crimes of Watergate took place — that are relevant and sometimes overlooked today.

What led to the Watergate cover-up was the fear that an investigation would reveal non-Watergate activities by the “plumbers’ unit” in the White House, which had been set up to “plug leaks,” among other things. Daniel Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1970, and the plumbers broke into the office of his psychiatrist to root out information about him. They wiretapped reporters, even White House aides. The list of their offenses is long.

Inexplicably, they used two of the plumbers to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, too. It was the arrests of those burglars that blew the lid off the whole thing, and the prior break-ins and wiretaps are now folklore as examples of the unscrupulousness of the Nixon White House.