It’s been 40 years since the Watergate scandal surfaced in June 1972, making this month an important moment to reflect on the lessons learned for the U.S. political system today.
In 1972 America was still mired in the Cold War. President Richard Nixon was in full electoral mode, trying to win a second term. Coming off some real successes with the USSR leadership of the day (détente) and visiting China (full diplomatic recognition), President Nixon had momentum and was facing Democrat George McGovern, seen as too far left to pose a real threat to his re-election . Yet, Nixon was not sure of a second term and had in place a mechanism to neutralize his opponents.
We know the rest. The burglary at the Democratic offices of the Watergate Office Complex, the resulting cover-up, abuse of power, perjury, news of break-ins, existence of a clandestine group called the Plumbers operating from within the White House, and the eventual resignation of the sitting president in 1974. Yet, Nixon had been re-elected in 1972, and the process that led to his departure was a true manifestation that the American constitution at the end of the day worked.
What are the main lessons that can be drawn from the Watergate Scandal? First, the role of money in election campaigns of the day was essentially unregulated. When Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, told the two investigative reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post to “follow the money,” it led to how much money was used to buy silence, commit perjury and commit crimes. Unfortunately, the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Citizens United case may now produce an adverse effect similar to pre-Watergate days.
Second, the importance of good, old fashioned journalism, including working the pavement, checking information, finding corroborating sources, and searching for new leads, was the major reason that the scandal was discovered, and the justice system ultimately prevailed. In today’s world of multiple news sources, social media and overreliance on opinion, we would do well to reexamine what Woodward and Bernstein brought to journalism and its place within democracy. The free press played its fundamental role in bringing the scandal to light.
Third, how the American system of checks and balances, which allowed the legislative branch through the Ervin Senate Committee hearings, and the judiciary (where the Supreme Court imposed the release of the incriminating Watergate tapes on the executive branch), played its constitutional role. The Senate hearings exposed the depth of the scandal, and the court system provided the venue for bringing the perpetrators to justice.
While Nixon avoided impeachment by resignation, and possible prison because of a presidential pardon, it was clear the American system and the constitution worked. Forty years later, it remains a lesson in democracy and why it is worth remembering, and learning from it.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.