Opinion

The Great Debate

Watergate: Are we there yet?

By Suzanne Garment
May 15, 2013

President Barack Obama at a news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

O.K., you know the one about the old guys sitting in the diner:

“When I was a boy, I had to walk five miles to school in the snow.”

“Snow?  I had to walk five miles in the snow with just newspapers on my feet.”

“Feet?  You had feet?”

That’s what it feels like when you lived through Watergate and the scandal decades that followed it. I was in Washington — sentient, glued to the tube, writing about it all. And Leonard Garment, my husband and the special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, was often the one in the center of the press mob, looking as if he wasn’t going to escape with his life. Then you read last weekend’s news reports about scandal politics “sweeping Washington.” Come on, people. Get a grip.

Watergate was about hubris, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the culture wars and the darkest of angers — both within Nixon and against him. The current agglomeration is about bureaucracies, the zeitgeist and garden variety political calculation.

Bearing in mind the all-purpose scandal caveat — the other shoe may always drop — it looks like what we have in the news is three distinct scandals, each emblematic of a different American political phenomenon.

The Associated Press scandal is the outgrowth of a perennial postwar (we’re talking World War Two) struggle between the press and the national security apparatus. The Internal Revenue Service scandal is a sign of a massive incoherence in the way the country regulates its non-profit groups. And the Benghazi scandal is — well, we’ll see.

The Associated Press scandal arises from a subpoena by the Justice Department of two months of phone records on 20 AP-related phone lines in pursuit of the source of a serious national security leak. This is not a matter of a particular administration’s having it in for the press: It is more elemental than that.

The press is charged with defending free and abundant political discourse; the government agencies guarding national security are charged, in appropriate circumstances, with shutting it down. Each side has a legitimate foothold in the constitutional scheme. The political climate sometimes favors one side, sometimes the other. Each side can be shrewder or more dimwitted in playing its political hand.

In this case, we may suspect that the Justice Department did not draw its subpoena narrowly enough. But we do not know. This may well be a matter of facts rather than principles. It is possible to watch the battle and root for both sides.

The second scandal — the IRS targeting of groups that applied for exemption and had terms like “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their names — is different. It has been likened to Nixon’s requesting IRS audits of groups representing his political enemies. But it is not the same.

It is not as bad — and it is worse. It is not as bad because the impetus for the targeting did not come directly from the White House. It is worse because the targeting did not limit itself to particular organizations but discriminated against classes of organizations.

For several decades, stretching back well before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission have been tying themselves into separate and intertwined knots trying to reconcile two notions: the idea that a charity or social welfare organization should be above and beyond partisan politics and the idea, championed by many of the country’s most prestigious non-profits, that any public interest organization worth its salt can and should engage in public advocacy.

The IRS has tried to make this incoherent mess of ideas operational. Its officials hit upon just the kind of administrative shortcut that inhabitants of a federal organization would think reasonable: The term “Tea Party” or “Patriot,” they decided, stands for a type of organization that is most likely to be devoted to politics rather than welfare. They did not think that the term “environment” or “social justice” in an organization’s name raised any such alarms.

There was no White House directive here. Just an overwhelming, unspoken political prejudice among the people who administer the federal tax law.

Finally, there is Benghazi — yet another kind of scandal. This is the scandal whose dynamic may come closest to that of Watergate, not because Benghazi is Watergate but because in the case of Benghazi a literal issue is coming to stand for something larger. The issue is whether the White House and the State Department substantively edited the Benghazi talking points that Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, recited on Sunday talk shows. The White House says no; the White House press corps is in the process of concluding yes.

It is tempting to smile condescendingly at the White House reporters who are now coming forward — courageously and righteously, they think — to challenge the administration’s account of the preparation of the talking points. These young reporters are to the Watergate press corps, at least the press corps once it was liberated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as ducklings are to tarantulas.

But this is the scandal that has the fingerprints of the White House on it. It is the one that raises the specter of the White House lying for political advantage. Moreover, though the people who died at Benghazi were cold by the time the talking points came under discussion, their death haunts this issue. This scandal, unlike the AP or the IRS scandal, could be fundamentally corrosive.

The AP and IRS scandals, for their parts, have the potential to sap the administration’s defenses — the former because it may rob the administration of partisans on the left and the latter because the reputation of the IRS for non-partisanship is — as it should be — one of the great lightning rods of American politics.

Benghazi, however, remains the central ring of this circus. It has not yet risen to anything comparable to Watergate.

If the children in the car ask, “Are we almost there yet?” the answer is, “Not even close.”  If the question is, “Are we maybe getting into the neighborhood of almost there yet?” the answer is not so certain.

Those young reporters who don’t remember Watergate will have the call.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): President Nixon during a press conference on Watergate.  REUTERS/Nixon Library

PHOTO (Insert B): President Richard M. Nixon gives his farewell speech to members of his Cabinet and staff in the East Room of the White House, following his resignation August 9, 1974. REUTERS/FILE PHOTO.

PHOTO (Insert C): Carl Bernstein (L) and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, outside Woodward’s home in Washington, June 1, 2005.REUTERS/Jason Reed

 

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

As our government twists in the winds of ever more incompetent intrigues wanting us to think in terms of “business as usual”, we must not. The issues of Benghazi, IRS and the AP fiasco must be weighed in proper context and perspective. While these must be addressed, and immediately, I am concerned that our “elected representatives” have become professional magicians, increasingly adept at directing our eyes and attention away from our “real problems”.

This is a time essentially without historical precedent in which the America’s economy is struggling on multiple major fronts. More and more we are as a runaway train with no Engineer on board or in charge. I see a consistent and conspicuous absence of leadership in terms of both financial and political priorities.

There has been incompetent and irresponsible spending for decades (think “budget”, “revenues”). In recent years this has only been possible by running the presses that print dollars full speed night and day. This has created the financial equivalent of nature’s “balanced rock” which threatens sudden and serious dilution of the purchasing power of our dollar from the slightest economic tremor.

The attention of every citizen is on every release of information as to “unemployment” and “job creation”.
We hear complaints of “outsourcing our jobs” to other nations who pay “slaves’ wages” and the necessity of “creating good middle class jobs” right here “at home”. BULL SCAT!

The “affordable computer” and effective software has made redundant millions and millions of America’s “good middle class jobs” of the reent past. Whole rooms of draftsmen, engineers, clerks, secretaries, bookkeepers, warehouses and inventory people, project managers have slowly been eliminated. These jobs did NOT go “overseas”. They are just GONE, permanently, like the weavers that used hand looms and the people that once made buggy whips. No longer necessary.

No more navigator, radio operator or flight engineer on our large passenger aircraft. Two people today operate a train miles long. Automatic weather observation stations have eliminated all human weather observers and the great majority of the people that once manned flight service stations.

Other than the highway department and other government “shovel leaners” we see on our daily commute, our society requires fewer and fewer people to do what must be done. The vast majority of “jobs” actually “created” today are part time positions in fast food, retail, etc. This problem is yet to be acknowledged, much less addressed.

Increasingly parts are made for machinery and vehicles assembled and even painted by robots. Computers don’t join unions, get work breaks, overtime, vacations, sick leave, family leave, or pensions. From now on, every time the “minimum wage” or “health benefits” increase in cost to employers, the rate of work place automation will accelerate as automation becomes more and more cost effective.

Why isn’t this economic “sea change” being debated? There is an obvious problem in that computers and robots do not purchase goods and services. So whose will be the responsibility to figure out how a “consumer marketplace” can be sustained as our society becomes more and more automated?

Europe doesn’t have a clue. They’re BROKE! The “Common Market” is in serious jeopardy and the Euro is on life support because their form of socialism is rapidly running out of “other people’s money”. This is NOT exactly the best example for America to look to today.

Now that all parties agree our government’s spending is unsustainable, who’s going to moderate the debate to determine priorities for available government funds. The logical approach is to separate America’s NEEDS from it”s WANTS, fund the NEEDS insofar as is possible, and anything left is for deficit reduction or WANTS.

But logical is not easy or simple or quick. Scratch the surface and we find that a liberal’s NEEDS are a conservative’s WANTS, and vice versa. Nonetheless, sooner or later this is going to HAVE to be done to SOME extent.

If it isn’t, there is NO LIMIT to the eventual expansion of the federal government and NO LIMIT on it’s demands for tax revenue from taxpayers.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

There has been no real change since Watergate 40years ago. Those who think so are having an illusion. The reason why Nixon Was hounded to resign was because of what he did in his first term – rapprochement with China, SALT talks with the Soviets and ending the Vietnam War. Was what he did any worse than LBJ’S manufacturing of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, LFK’s assassination of NGO Dinh Diem, Reagan Iran-Contra fiasco when he forgot what happened and GW Bush’s WMD and illegal invasion of Iraq? The latest antics is just bipartisan politics and will not amount to much. IT is 40 years since Watergate and yet the ultra right wing China (Taiwan) Lobby, Military Industrial Complex plot to get rid of Nixon that was cleverly passed on to the liberal press was never suspected. If Nixon did those things including the desegregation of the south and won by a landslide what would he do in his second term? He had to go.

Why were the Watergate culprits arrested at their third attempt to break-in? Smacks like courting arrest to me. Why were the dollar bills with serial numbers that pointed to the Nixon white House found on all the culprits? Why was Howard Hunts details found on the diary/address books of the two arrested Cubans when he was no longer employed at the White House? These were supposed to be professional ex-CIA agents. There will be the same confessions by flunkeys without any consequences. Strangely, Nixon and Chief of Staff Bob Halderman never pleaded guilty to cover-up. To really understand what actually took place read my book “Watergate – the Political Assassination” with an open mind. I never supported Nixon who was a patriot and wanted peace in Vietnam with honour. Although he lamented the death of some 45,000 US service men and women, he had nothing to say about the 3 million Vietnamese killed or Agent Orange. But Nixon had always been an outsider.

Posted by renechang | Report as abusive
 

@oots
has your ” key worn off yet?

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive
 

@OneOfTheSheep

What are you exactly suggesting? I understand that the current economy has removed a lot of jobs, especially concerning physical labour.

The ones that are most affected by these changes are either poorly educated and poorly skilled. If they were capable of better functions they would not have been so easily replacable.
Now how do we find these people new, well-paying jobs that require little or no skill and education? In my opinion not by creating a social system that makes them competitive. I believe in a liberal economic system where one has to think about his own competitive advantage and methodology in receiving employemnt. However, such a system should provide the opportunities to do so. Not by forcefully creating jobs but creating a knowledge-based economy through proper education. Only a system that develops people into self-functioning individuals can be truly sustainable and progressive on the long term.

Posted by theAntagonist | Report as abusive
 

Actually, there are FOUR scandals – the last one being the rise in rapes of military personnel. Many of us are outraged by this and more should be.

I remember Watergate – also the terrible reign of J. Edgar Hoover, the “black lists” and more governmental wrongdoings. More recently we had “Fast and Furious” with underlings taking the blame, as military underlings took the blame in Iraq for torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

When will the ones at the top start taking responsibility? Looks like the response of “I didn’t know” is programmed into governmental brains.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive
 

@theAntagonist,

Thanks for asking.

Yes, the current economy has been hard on labor, particularly in manufacturing and the construction trades. But construction will “bounce back”. What won’t is the steady replacement of Americans by illegal aliens hired in crews and paid in cash (unless something changes).

All the people in the fields I mentioned had “good middle class jobs”. With all those jobs GONE, what happened to the people? Limited possibilities, few good; which is WHY our “middle class” is shrinking so rapidly.

For the most part they are reemployed receiving substantially less money (no longer “middle class”), on unemployment (which eventually runs out), on disability, retired or prematurely retired on next to no income because they can’t find employment of any sort, or they have passed away.

There is no such thing as a “job”. That’s why hearing someone say “that’s not my job” is so particularly irritating to an employer. Employers hire others to amplify their own ability to MAKE MONEY. Our economy/social system is one in which the most competitive of equals get the best jobs and/or make the most money. Ambition, effort and persistence are absolutely reliable advantages, as they should be.

If they can hire and utilize enough of that person’s time effectively so that what they contribute in terms of services or “value added”, AFTER OVERHEAD, allows them reasonable profit for their investment and management effort they hire. When “things change”…materials increase in price, if they can’t raise their prices, they have to get concessions from labor to keep their people. So as an employer’s “needs” change, either the employed must meet the new need or be replaced with someone that does.

“Good management” and common sense today reward those employers who are successful in breaking down yesterday’s “good middle-class jobs” into relatively simple tasks anyone warm and breathing that can read and do basic math can master in a week or two “on the job”. Because there are so many such people in the labor market, these positions don’t pay much more than minimum wage and there is little, if any, possibility of advancement in either responsibility or pay.

If this is to change, government must either offer employers some incentives or penalize them somehow. Government today mandates “minimum fleet mileage” in our cars. We may see the day when it dictates wage scales for employers over a certain size.

But, in the end, as union employees of cities, and Hostess and American Airlines are discovering, reality reigns. And in a time of economic retrenchment and search for solutions those slipping out of the middle class are less and less likely to tolerate those in unions receiving a premium above the “market value” of what they do.

The Germans have always been more realistic and efficient with their educational budget. After twelve years of public schooling they can turn out skilled machinists (or whatever other “trade skilled people their economy needs). For such people, having their education well matched to the needs of their society means they have had “good jobs” waiting and steady employment.

In America our “educational establishment” feels obligated to graduate “well rounded college bound citizens” who must then undertake, at their own expense, some sort of trade or secondary education to find meaningful employment. They fundamentally deem it “beneath them” to consider or accept responsibility for the employability of their graduates. That must change. In this sense I believe you and I are of similar mind.

Many issues today are interlinked. The incredibly high unemployment rate of minorities directly relates to their relative lack of skill, experience and productivity.

These are the people who will be worst affected by our elected “representatives” giving AMNESTY to between twelve and twenty million illegal aliens in hopes of receiving eventual votes of gratitude in return. In so many, many levels this will be economic suicide, a slow motion train wreck no one can stop once under way.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

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