So we’re up to another decadal anniversary of Watergate, with most of the usual themes being reprised, though with a few modifications from the last decadal reminiscence. First, we finally learned the identity of “Deep Throat” a few years ago—FBI agent Mark Felt—and that his motives were not so noble. Felt was a frustrated climber who was angry that Nixon passed him over to be FBI director, and thus sought revenge by leaking to Woodstein at the Post. There’s also been some great stories over the last week debunking what I’ve always called “the Standard Heroic Account” that places Woodward and Bernstein at the center of the story: without their intrepid reporting, Nixon might have got away with it! It turns out the sensational Woodstein stories advanced the investigation very little. The FBI was generally several steps ahead of the media in unraveling the story.
Watergate remains the Jack the Ripper of political scandals, with many unanswered questions and inexplicable anomalies—and a pattern of anomalies, as my late great teacher Harold Rood taught us, usually add up to something that is not random. Above all, just what the heck were the burglar/buggers after? The infamous “call girl ring” story remains alive, though the favorite theory is still that the Nixon campaign wanted to see what information Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O’Brien might have had about Nixon, and particularly Nixon’s connections to Howard Hughes or to a Greek tycoon, Thomas Pappas, whose secret contributions to Nixon’s campaign would have been embarrassing if publicly revealed. Maybe so, but here’s one of the anomalies: According to some accounts, O’Brien’s office was never bugged (other accounts say a bug was planted, but didn’t work), and the burglars were caught far from O’Brien’s office on that fateful night. The original bug the burglars thought had malfunctioned—but which had in fact been removed—had been placed in the office of a low-level subordinate employee who was seldom at the office. Maybe the burglar/buggers were just incompetent? Perhaps. After all, why did veteran CIA agent James McCord do something as stupid as tape a door open a second time, which would be an obvious tip off to Watergate security? This has always unfolded onto a Hollywood-like conspiracy theory that the CIA was behind the whole thing, because The Compnay thought Nixon was trying to exert too much control over the agency, which Nixon disliked. A faction of the military is also alleged to have helped exploit Watergate as a means to derail Nixon’s arms control efforts. (This was, coincidentally, the line the Soviet press adopted.) “If we didn’t know better,” Nixon remarked on one of the famous tapes, “[we] would have thought it was deliberately botched.”
Perhaps we’ll never know. In any case, how should conservatives think about Watergate, or at least its political consequences? Here’s how I summarized it in the first volume of The Age of Reagan:
While the sleuths of history attempt to peel away the tantalizing missing details suggested above, it is in the more abstract arena of Watergate’s effect on the constitutional structure of government where the most important revisionism remains to be done. The reaction to the temporary constitutional crisis brought about by Nixon’s misdeeds (temporary because he would have been gone from the White House by 1976 anyhow) was a permanent constitutional crisis in the form of the powers that Congress and the bureaucracy usurped from the executive branch during its post-Watergate weakness. Watergate didn’t just change our standards of ethics in government; it changed how the Constitution works. Far from showing that “the system works,” Watergate introduced significant new distortions into our “system” that Ronald Reagan was largely unable to affect despite two popular landslide elections, and which persist today.
On the lighter side, I can’t conclude without recalling the views of my mentor M. Stanton Evans, who quipped that a true conservative was someone who didn’t support Nixon until after Watergate. Evans had been a sharp critic of Nixon from the right—he said in 1970 that “There’s only two things I don’t like about President Nixon: his domestic policy, and his foreign policy.” But of Watergate, he said, “After wage and price controls, Watergate was like a breath of fresh air.” He supposedly called over to the White House in the midst of their agony and said, “Gosh—if only I’d known you guys were doing all of this neat stuff, I wouldn’t have been so hard on you.”