Daddy, what was Watergate?

So now we know who Deep Throat was, and the answer isn’t very exciting. It didn’t turn out to be William Rehnquist (always an absurd rumor) or even Leonard Garment or Fred Fielding. It turned out to be a disgruntled FBI guy, barely remembered even by Washington insiders of the day. Now the Washington parlor game du jour is to debate whether he was a hero. Peggy Noonan argues convincingly that he was not.
But this doesn’t mean that Watergate was a psuedo-scandal, as many conservatives suggest. The dirty tricks and improper tactics used by President Nixon’s operatives against his political opponents were a serious matter, and no less so just because President Johnson and to a lesser extent other presidents had employed some similar measures. When Nixon participated in, and indeed tried to orchestrate, a cover-up, he committed offenses that arguably warranted his removal from office. Many of those who pushed for Nixon’s removal were unsavory characters themselves, or have become so in subsequent years. But that’s not relevant to the merits of the case against Nixon. Indeed, Nixon himself seemed partially to recognize this fact in the remarks he made upon resigning.
I’m also a little puzzled by those who, like Ben Stein, blame the proceedings against Nixon for the fall of South Vietnam and the genocide in Cambodia. Many of the individuals in question can be blamed for these events because they flowed from policies they advocated. But holding them accountable merely because they tried to remove Nixon strikes me as a bit like blaming those who tried to remove President Clinton for the rise of al Qaeda. In a sense, we’re always better off having a president who is free from serious attack, or even serious criticism, because that state of affairs leaves the president in a better position to see to the nation’s business. But that’s not a sufficient justification for declining to take action against a president who engages in serious wrongdoing.
UPDATE: I think some readers have misunderstood what I tried to say in the last paragraph of this post (the fault probably is mine for not having been clear enough). I understand the argument that there is a causal connection between what the Democrats did to Nixon and the tragedies that occurred in Southeast Asia. Arguably, had the Democrats not acted as they did towards Nixon, some or all of these tragedies would have been averted. However, my argument is that the Democrats’ actions towards Nixon are not to blame because they had the right to try to remove Nixon (assuming that he may have committed impeachable offenses). My point, I guess, is that the opposition has no obligation to tolerate a president who commits serious wrongdoing merely because his foreign policy may be correct and his successor’s may turn out not to be. Recall that the Democrats tried at times to answer claims that Clinton should be impeached for having committed perjury by citing the alleged virtues of his substantive policies. I don’t think that kind of argument flies.
JOHN adds: For what it’s worth, I’m not aware of any evidence that Nixon had a Plan B for what to do when the Communists violated the terms of the Vietnam peace agreement. I don’t think it was politically feasible for any American administration to re-start the war effort at that point, and, short of that, I don’t know what could have been done, whether Watergate had happened or not. Maybe others can correct my understanding of the relevant history.
Beyond that, it’s fair to blame the antiwar movement, which came to dominate the Democratic Party and heavily influence the Republican Party (without ever representing a majority of the American people), for the fall of Vietnam and associated disasters. But that’s because of the movement’s Vietnam policy, not because of the fact that the same people, more or less, “got” Nixon. Nixon, one should remember, ran as an end-the-war candidate in 1968. His Vietnamization policy made sense if the overriding goal was to extricate America from the war–which I think it was–but there was never any guarantee that the South Vietnamese could hold off the Communist aggressors, and, in the event, they couldn’t.


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