What kind of legacy has Watergate left behind a half a century on? Why should we remember a break-in at the offices of a political party in the US of the 1970s?
Watergate was more than just a failed burglary. It became the defining political scandal of an era with resonances felt even to the present day, with lessons for politicians and the public in the US and worldwide.
An amateurish burglary, it devastated the US political system and resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
In the wake of the civil and racial turmoil of the of 1960s and the Vietnam war, Watergate dealt an almost fatal blow to America’s faith in itself and its system of government. Despite this, Watergate showed that the US system of ‘checks and balances’ managed to maintain the system’s integrity, by doing what it was established to do: to hold the powerful to account.
Watergate also marked a step up for the US press and media. Without the role of Woodward and Bernstein of The Washington Post, the story would probably have died an early death. Woodward and Bernstein were the first examples of ‘journalists as rock stars’, spawning a huge industry of investigative reporting. This was accompanied by the tawdrier, more intrusive sides of the tabloid media, but the idea of the media holding the powerful to account has been another positive legacy of the scandal.
My own interest in Watergate stems from various sources. As a teenager, I was captivated by the televised hearings of the Senate Watergate hearings. My fascination was reinforced by the derring-do of Woodward and Bernstein, excellently portrayed in the film, ‘All The Presidents’ Men’ and by my interest in politics generally.
Many years later, in my 30s, my job in London with British Gas PLC led me to Washington where I spent a couple of years as their Washington representative while attached to a policy research think-tank there. My office was located in the Watergate office building, only a few floors up from where the break-in took place.
I clearly recall, how on my first day, I took the lift down to the sixth floor hoping to tread the historic ground. Against my expectations, I walked instead into the plush suite of a non-profit organisation. The Democratic National Committee had departed long before, on the basis no doubt of the organisation’s previous bad experiences with office security.
Of great surprise to me as an inveterate political anorak was the almost blasé attitude of my American colleagues to the historical setting in which we worked. After a period, I suppose Watergate gets boring. but for me, the newly arrived foreigner, I saw myself as walking through history each working day.
The political and parliamentary committee systems in Britain and Ireland also owe their provenance to the greater political oversight and accountability emerging in the wake of Watergate instigated by the US Congress. The US Congressional Committee system has succeeded in playing a key role in uncovering many important examples of public malfeasance. In a nod to this effectiveness, parliamentary committees at Westminster, Stormont and in the Dail all draw a strong connection with the spirit of post-Watergate reform.
Critically, Watergate proved that it is not the original crime but the attempt to cover it up that usually leads to the transgressor’s undoing. Politicians who show early contrition often receive the public’s forgiveness, while evasion raises public contempt, a cardinal rule many politicians fail to recognise.
It was Richard Nixon’s continued lying and stonewalling that did it for him with the US public. Had Boris Johnson initially issued a simple public apology for the Downing Street parties, he might have escaped with a mild slap on the wrist. Johnson’s culpability is chiefly focusing on his not being honest with Parliament, the gravest of all sins in the British political world.
Another by-product of Watergate is a linguistic one. The term “gate” is now frequently used as a suffix for any vaguely salacious event. Currently, ‘Partygate’, one in a long line of such confections, is a case in point.
Watergate left many impressions. Nixon’s maudlin resignation speech in August 1974 and his earlier assertion that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”; John Dean’s electrifying testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee; the role of ‘Deep Throat’; and the highly charged Frost interviews, endure as key memories of the era. What started out as a minor burglary became the major political scandal of the era.
In my own experience, the symbol that left the strongest impression was the seedy, low-budget Howard Johnson motel opposite the Watergate building. It was from there that the burglars staked out their target.
In a rush, I would occasionally drop in and grab a quick bite at lunchtime. Sandwiches were my preferred option, but I will never forget the unappetising offerings of meatloaf which I studiously avoided. Howard Johnson’s summed up the whole tawdry nature of the Watergate break-in – a low grade bugging attempt from a low-grade motel.
Worth noting is that Watergate demonstrated US ability to hold the powerful to account, something starkly absent from an autocratic system like Putin’s Russia and other autocracies. While the US system failed to prevent the rise of a Donald Trump, a subsequent autocrat from assuming power, it does, however, have a system that allows for such persons to be robustly challenged, held up to public scrutiny and ultimately, voted out of office.
Current televised hearings from Washington on the Capitol Hill riots will hark back to the Senate Watergate hearings: showing how history can repeat itself.
Nixon’s actions had the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. In true tragic fashion, his taping of his Oval Office conversations provided the very evidence for his eventual downfall.
Half a century later, Watergate continues to provide lessons about unaccountable power, the role of the media, of truth and ultimately, of how fragile democracy can be.
l In tomorrow’s News Letter, Ronnie Hanna examines the fall of Richard Nixon’s turbulent presidency
About the author
Paul McElhinney, a lecturer, a writer and former official in the Department of the Taoiseach, has written many articles in Irish and international journals and is the author of ‘Lion of the RAF’, a biography of Air Marshal Sir George Beamish. He is currently working on the history of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin and a book on the city and county of Londonderry.