Getting beyond Watergate

In retrospect, Aug. 9, 1974 was probably a tragic day for progressives. Richard Nixon left office because of the Watergate scandal, giving Democrats a dubious victory. After years of criticizing Nixon, they finally got their man. But one may ask, at what price?

For many in the United States, Watergate solely was the fault and crimes of government, the result of what Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency.” Suddenly the engine that had driven liberalism many distances politically was the problem. Forget that a good deal of Watergate was the mobilizing of private resources for governmental favor, the state got the blame. Even Jimmy Carter ran against Washington in 1976.

What is interesting is the mythology of Watergate promoted by ambitious reporters. It was all due to Nixon, who, attempting to muzzle critics, had attempted to bug Democratic headquarters and then not so artfully covered it up. The people’s right to know had been secured by brave and dauntless reporters.

Then came the revelation that Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s second in command, was the famous “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s source. Now the crusade for respect for civil liberties came from Hoover’s FBI – an agency that thought nothing of wire tapping Martin Luther King. Moreover, the heroes of Watergate were the conservatives – most notably Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Limited government became all the rage. In the end, the Right were the long term victors.

Democrats, eager to take advantage of Nixon’s difficulties, drove him from office to no purpose. Gerald Ford – more conservative than his predecessor – was praised for being dull, able to cook his own breakfast, and when Carter received the nomination, no liberal was represented in the bicentennial year.

Republicans tried to eliminate Bill Clinton on thinner lines. Both parties were somewhat ungrateful: Democrats eliminated Nixon who proclaimed, “we are all Keynesians now” when ending the Gold Standard in 1971, and Clinton who proclaimed the “era of big government is over” in 1996. But the tit for tat use of special prosecution continued, to everyone’s detriment. Particularly, it is suggested that it damaged Democrats more.

Democrats are the party of government and there is no avoiding that fact. From 1974 on, political battles were fought on those lines until 2008. Barack Obama’s breakthrough re-established the role of the Federal Government as a tool for the good, yet some reporters, especially those that talk about “Obama’s horrible year,” still are stuck in the 1970’s.

Process is not as important as results. After Watergate, everyone desired to be a gate keeper, not an instigator. Obama brought back an era of activism, where holding the hands of self-important reporters was not a top priority.

Obama so far has changed the debate. Now politicians talk of minimum wage increases more than tax cuts. Suddenly, government has become a vehicle for change.

Perhaps the post-Watergate era has arrived.