Politics & Policy

The Lessons of Watergate

President Richard Nixon at a White House news conference, March 15, 1973
Caricatures of the evil Nixon don’t help us learn how to counter abuses of power.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#But the more significant truth about all of this is how easily even legitimate national-security concerns can spill over into blatant lawlessness. What seldom if ever is mentioned in Watergate discussions is what was going on in the country at the time the plumbers’ unit was formed. Starting in 1969, anti–Vietnam War activity had turned violent. Bombings were commonplace. The University of Wisconsin bombing, which killed one and injured several, occurred because the school was doing research for the Army. The Weathermen failed in a bombing attempt in New York City. The U.S. Capitol was bombed. The killings at Kent State occurred and the reaction was tremendous, as mobs took over campuses. Hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed Washington with the announced intention of shutting down the government. More than 17,000 troops and police surrounded the White House to protect it. And, of course, the Pentagon Papers were printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Obviously, strong but legal countermeasures were called for. But gradually, legitimate concern morphed into something quite illegitimate.

It seems, however, that for some protectors of the Watergate legacy the acknowledgment of this context somehow minimizes the crimes of Nixon. What it actually does is provide a lesson on the importance of vigilance. There has not been an administration since Nixon’s where the issue of the unilateral authority of the president with regard to national security has not been present, especially in time of foreign conflict.

#ad#We make a mistake when we build a moral fence around Watergate. It was, indeed, unprecedented in many ways, and the ugly array of crimes, misplaced loyalties, immaturity, and hubris speaks for itself. But Watergate is more about the frailties of man and his tendency to abuse power than it is about the unique evil of a small group of people at one time in history.

We had never before had the “benefit” of listening to the private conversations of a president at his worst, but the Watergate Committee did peek behind that curtain a bit. Before John Dean left the reservation, he called upon William Sullivan, a retired former aide to J. Edgar Hoover, for a little historical perspective — in other words, to provide Nixon with some defense for his “national-security” wiretaps.

Sullivan wrote a memo for Dean outlining FBI activities on behalf of earlier presidents. I obtained the memo, and my staff interviewed Sullivan and other top former Hoover aides who had personal knowledge of the subject. It seems that FDR used the FBI to look into the background of those who opposed his Lend-Lease legislation, including a telephone tap on one person. He and Mrs. Roosevelt pressed for limitations on certain investigations of their friends, as well as for monitoring the activities of his political opponents.

President Johnson had the FBI place a physical surveillance on a prominent friend of Nixon’s in 1968 for reasons of “national security.” Members of Goldwater’s staff were similarly kept under surveillance in 1964. Johnson also requested that the FBI check all outgoing telephone calls made by vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew on November 2, 1968, while he was in Albuquerque.

The FBI was asked to provide “special assistance” during the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and report back to Walter Jenkins, a top Johnson aide. There was going to be a problem about credentials with regard to Alabama and Mississippi between the predominantly black Freedom Democratic Party and George Wallace’s slate, which was threatening a walkout. According to the agent in charge of the electronic surveillance at the convention, he and his colleagues bugged the rooms of Martin Luther King and James Farmer  at the Claridge Hotel. Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, who immediately preceded Sullivan as Hoover’s assistant, told us that this was done under the authority of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

We reported all of this to the Watergate Committee, and the majority considered it to be irrelevant to the matter at hand, so that was the end of it. I wrote about it in my book At That Point in Time in 1975.

Anyone who is considered to be a “revisionist” when it comes to Watergate is mightily frowned upon. The story has become too neat a package to have it messed with. However, if we are going to continue to have these celebrations and introduce young people to what we believe to be the “lessons of Watergate,” a little perspective is in order. Otherwise we’ll miss some of the real lessons — lessons that are much older than Watergate, even much older than our country, and that are just as relevant today.

— Fred Thompson represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003. For  more from Fred Thompson, visit FredThompsonsAmerica.com.

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