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

 

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