A Watergate footnote

John has undertaken a series comparing Benghazigate to Watergate. Benghazigate is still unraveling, so the comparison presents certain difficulties, but we are still in the dark concerning some of the most basic facts regarding the Watergate scandal as well.

Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler characterized Watergate as a “third-rate burglary.” The Democrats, by contrast, characterized Watergate as something vastly greater than the crime on the surface. According to Senator Ervin, this was Watergate: “To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.”

Democrats held Watergate to be an assault on the American political system. The target of the operation, after all, was the Democratic National Committee. The treasure sought by the burglars, whatever it was, wasn’t filthy lucre.

But what was Watergate? We don’t know who ordered the bungled second break-in of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. We don’t know the motive for the break-in. We don’t know what the burglars looking for. We do know that as early as June 20, 1972, President Nixon took charge of efforts to cover up his campaign’s link to the break-in and and sought to manipulate the resources of the executive branch to engineer a coverup.

Forty years later Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward looked back. In their retrospective last year they purported to provide the perspective of time and the accumulation of knowledge to the judgment that Nixon was far worse than we thought.

I’m pretty sure they always thought he was as bad as they portrayed him. Did they really need forty years to render their verdict? Anthony Lukas arrived at the same verdict on much the same evidence in Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years in 1976, as did Stanley Kutler in The Wars of Watergate in 1990.

You have to slog through nearly to the end of the 2012 Woodstein remix to find this:

Even now, there are old Nixon hands and defenders who dismiss the importance of Watergate or claim that key questions remain unanswered. This year, Thomas Mallon, director of the creative writing program at George Washington University, published a novel called “Watergate,” a sometimes witty and entirely fictional story featuring many of the real players. Frank Gannon, a former Nixon White House aide who now works for the Nixon Foundation, reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal.

“What emerges from ‘Watergate’ is an acute sense of how much we still don’t know about the events of June 17, 1972,” Gannon wrote. “Who ordered the break-in? . . . What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? . . . And how did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a ‘third rate burglary?’

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Of course, Gannon is correct in noting that there are some unanswered questions — but not the big ones. By focusing on the supposed paucity of details concerning the burglary of June 17, 1972, he would divert us from the larger story.

Thanks for clearing that up, guys.