Time passes so quickly. I’ve had chance once again in recent weeks to be startled by that fact, as I watched history repeat itself and noticed the number of people who weren’t born when it happened the first time.
My first memory of the word “Watergate” is from 40 years ago next month. The nation was in the middle of an ideologically charged presidential campaign. I was covering an appearance in Columbia, Mo., by Sargent Shriver, the Democrats’ candidate for vice president.
There was need for fence mending in Missouri; their original vice presidential candidate had been Thomas Eagleton, a senator from Missouri. But then came word that Eagleton had undergone treatment for some sort of mental illness, which therapy included electric shock, and was currently on Thorazine. George McGovern, the presidential candidate, famously announced that was “1000 percent behind Tom Eagleton, and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket,” then dumped him and replaced him with Shriver. Missouri was angry that their favorite son, albeit a possibly crazy one who might have had part of his brain burned away, had been mistreated. Thus the campaign swing.
The press tag for the event carried but one word: “Watergate.” It was a clever move in one respect, in that most of the reporters there had no idea what it meant and might now keep an eye out for the word. It was less clever in that it made what turned out to be a significant scandal seem at first to be nothing more than typical political mudslinging.
Watergate is the name of a hotel, office, and apartment complex in Washington D.C. In 1972 it housed the offices of the Democratic National Committee. On June 17 of that year five men were arrested in the midst of a burglary there. They had apparently been trying to bug the place. Almost from the first there seemed to be some connection with President Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Despite the attempts by McGovern’s campaign to draw attention to the event, it did not catch on at first and Nixon went on to victory, receiving 520 electoral votes to McGovern’s 17.
The investigation into the Watergate break-in and associated persons and occurrences continued after the election, however, in no small measure because political bitterness ran nearly as high then as it does … now. A couple of local reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became famous as a result of the work they did tracking down what turned out to be an elaborate system of dirty tricks in the Nixon campaign. They would later write a book about their adventures, which would be made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. (The book and movie were entitled “All the President’s Men,” but in the Washington Post newsroom the movie was called “Butch and Sundance Bring Down the Government.”)
Congressional investigations followed. There wasn’t any evidence that the president knew about the burglary and other dirty tricks ahead of time, but there was a strong suggestion that he knew about and perhaps had been involved in the later cover-up of White House involvement. During one of the hearings a former presidential aide, Alexander Butterfield, mentioned that Nixon taped his Oval Office meetings. The Senate committee looking into the whole business demanded those tapes.
Nixon refused to turn them over, citing something called “executive privilege.” The White House offered edited transcripts of the tapes and other compromises. Investigators sued to obtain the tapes themselves, and won. In July of 1974 the tapes were turned over. They showed that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up. What’s more, he had manipulated the Department of Justice through Attorney General John Mitchell to help keep his terrible secret. On August 8, 1974, Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace.
Let us remove ourselves to the present day. It turns out that some small or large portion of the Obama Justice Department was involved a couple of years ago in a project called “Operation Fast and Furious.” The details remain sketchy (for reasons that shall be seen), but it basically involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms allowing members of Mexican drug cartels to purchase high-powered weapons in the U.S. and escape unhindered into Mexico, where they used the guns to kill many people, including a U.S. immigration agent. They also brought some of the guns back into the U.S., where at least one of them was used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol Agent named Brian Terry in Arizona in December 2010.
For some reason Congressional investigators have wanted to know who came up with this harebrained scheme and why it was apparently now being covered up. Attorney General Eric Holder seems to have lied repeatedly to the investigators, claiming for instance that he never heard of “Fast and Furious” until 2011, but on another occasion claiming he had shut it down in 2010. The investigators have sought email exchanges and other latter-day equivalents of Nixon’s tapes. The administration has refused to turn them over. The president has invoked “executive privilege.” No one invokes executive privilege when the information they’re withholding would exonerate them.
Of course, there are those who would say that it’s ridiculous to compare “Fast and Furious” with the Watergate scandal.
And they are right. No one got killed in Watergate.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.