Watergate at 50: The Consequences of ImpunityRoundup
tags: Richard Nixon, democracy, Watergate, presidential history
Barry Sussman was city news editor at The Washington Post at the time of the Watergate break-in. He directed the coverage that won the Post the Pulitzer prize for public service in 1973. His book, The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, was named by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year in 1974.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of posts on the author's website examining the legacy of Watergate at the 50th anniversary of the breakin.
Fifty years after the break-in some Watergate ideas emerge.
Among the main ones, in my view, are that the failure to prosecute Nixon and the Ford pardon of him did great damage to democracy in America. Republican presidents after Nixon stretched or broke the law or lied, certain they were taking little risk, for if he wasn’t prosecuted, why would they be? Such behavior was bipartisan among presidents before Nixon, as in Lyndon Johnson’s lying about the Vietnam war. But with Nixon and afterward it no longer made sense to think of the two political parties as equal or nearly equal in lying, deceit, cheating, and criminality. Republicans do it all the time; it is their mark, a distinguishing feature.
In the next couple of weeks I will be writing about this flight from democracy and other Watergate legacies.
Some Republican presidents’ activities, such as Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, were so repugnant or illegal that they had to be done in secret; when discovered, the response was a cover-up. Eventually the move away from democracy led to Donald Trump, with Republicans in all sectors of government taking part. Obstruction, manipulation of public opinion, outlandish court decisions, twisted media coverage by Fox News and copy-cat media outlets, secret funding and other support from the far-right segment of the ultra-rich were frequent tools. Those, and racist appeals from dog whistles to loud shrieks, along with measures to block Blacks from voting.
In the Executive branch, attorneys general became presidents’ personal lawyers and fixers. One example is William Barr, Trump’s third and longest-lasting attorney general, whose conduct was so deceitful and dishonest that in 2020 twenty-seven members of the District of Columbia bar association, including four past presidents of the group, sought his disbarment.
In the Supreme Court, justices became an arm of the party, even intervening to stop a vote recount and appoint a Republican president in a close election, a stunning political coup. They issued rulings to suppress the vote for Democrats in every region and ended curbs on corporate and secret campaign contributions. Republican presidents nominated only reliable functionaries to the court, such as Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, the three appointed by Trump.
When Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell rushed Barrett’s nomination through at the end of Trump’s term in office, many observers said democracy in America was threatened. The outcry became shrill, even panicky, with Trump’s defiant attempts to stay in office after losing the 2020 election and the help he got from so many party leaders in Washington and across the country. The riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, may have been an outpouring of emotion for many who took part but for some the violence and the failure to stop it for hours were part of a plot to block Joseph Biden from taking office.