Watergate: The Real Legacy

Despite the fact that literally millions of folks are clamoring to get into the Land of Milk and Money, for the most part, the American timeline is seen as a series of bloodthirsty conflicts, driven in part by a predilection for gunslinger economics.  This is all in the abstract, of course, since most of the world’s knowledge of America is produced in Hollywood and consists of shootouts, car chases and ancient reruns of Baywatch.  The fact is, however, that since its inception, the twists of America history have had an influence far beyond its shores.  They run all the way from a bunch of Virginia farmers inventing a workable democracy in the 18th century to the boys from Compton and East Harlem reinventing music in the 21st.

Over the years, American cultural hegemony has become a catch-all for discontent.  Since anti-Americanism is one of the few prejudices left open to ordinary people, they take full advantage of it.  There are actually folks in this world cheerleading the demise of the American empire as if it were an international sporting event.   More than a little of this myopic thinking can be traced to a pivotal moment in American history — forty years ago, yesterday — June 17th, 1972.  In the lingering twilight of a late June evening, President Richard Nixon sent his minions to play mischief with the National Democratic Headquarters and changed the world forever — at a place called Watergate.

More than the Kennedy assassination, the Moon Landing or the Vietnam War, Watergate is what has defined America in the second half of the 20th century.  The incredible conspiracy that didn’t so much reach into the White House as begin there, soured the prestige of politics so thoroughly it remains rancid even today — and not only in America but around the world.  The months and years of the Watergate scandal eventually devoured all the goodwill accumulated by America during World War II and the postwar generosity of the Marshal Plan.  It confirmed what young people were saying about the industrial military complex, inequality and racism: America was a poisoned apple, rotten at its very core.

Richard Nixon is the natural villain in all this.  Regardless of how many presidents before or since have bent and broken the law to suit their purposes — including lying to a Grand Jury and dronebombing American citizens out of season — Nixon’s utter disregard for the rule of law set the standard by which all other scandals have since been judged.    No political wrongdoing since 1972 has escaped being suffix-Gated in the media and in our minds.  And that’s the worst of it: the unexpected consequences of the felonies of a President.

Watergate was the beginning of Gotcha Journalism.  As the scandal escalated, it became obvious that the conspiracy was real.  Proof was the problem; catching all the president’s men in the lies and half-truths they were spinning to cover things up became the way to get at it.  Journalists began setting traps for Nixon’s boys — and catching them.  It was no longer a question of if somebody was lying; it was only a question of when and to whom.  Ironically, even as Woodward and Bernstein were being lauded as crusading folk heroes (enrollment in journalism schools doubled by 1974) their style of investigative journalism was going out of style.  Headlines were constructed out of zingers shouted at press conferences, and videotaped ambushes became the norm on the nightly news.  Then, as with every witch hunt, things started getting out of hand.  Innuendo was considered corroboration, opinion newsworthy and everyone was conjuring up their own private “Deep Throat.”  By 1974, without Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, the media was already turning its klieg lights on any public servant who didn’t keep his head down.  Suddenly, everybody from Ford’s demoralized White House to the Des Moines dog catcher was guilty.  Malfeasance was everywhere, and anybody with a press card was out to expose it.  There were reputations to be made, bestsellers to write and movie deals to sign.  Journalism was no longer staid and Walter Cronkite-jowled; it was Redford and Hoffman cool — and only one scandal away from greatness.  Forty years later, the media is still at it, hunting conspiracies like French pigs after truffles.

Watergate, like Gettysburg or Elvis, was a watershed in American history.  It was a point in time when the past was swept away — and just like Gettysburg and Elvis — it not only changed America but the entire world.  Richard Nixon’s presidency was never really the spawn of Satan that many people claim.  His administration was corrupt, without doubt, but history tells us that many administrations have been corrupt — in Washington and around the world.  No, Richard Nixon’s legacy will forever be that he could not protect the prestige of his office nor his country from the ambitions of his own ego.  As a result, he unleashed a media storm that has lasted nearly a half a century.  Most importantly, though, he destroyed the carte blanche of good will America once enjoyed at home and around the world.