ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

It is scandal time again in Washington, with a triple-header to boot – Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate and AP-gate. The “gate” being the obligatory suffix ever since the biggest “gate” of them all: Watergate. How do they rate? Well, Carl Bernstein, the reporter who helped break the Watergate story, has gone so far as to compare AP-gate to the transgressions of President Richard M. Nixon.

But no matter how much the media may froth over them, none of these scandals has the heft, the cultural, political and social weight of Watergate. These are all skirmishes in an age of “gotcha” polarization. Watergate was no skirmish, even if some Republicans at the time and even today characterize it as such. It was a vast, complex metaphor for a country in extremis – which is why it still dwarfs every other aspiring “gate.”

Metaphors function much like art, and you might consider Watergate not as a scandal but as a gigantic movie. Not just any movie blockbuster, either, but as America’s epic noir. Film noir was a genre that began in the late 1940s, when America was forced to confront the darkness within itself after World War II. “Film noir” translates into  “black film, and the noir movies of the time were literally and figuratively dark. They involved corruption, deceit, amorality and the potential rot of the American soul – capturing the anxiety of the Cold War era.

Similarly, even before the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation, there was a cluster of films that, like those earlier noir movies, tapped into the national bloodstream and addressed a larger sense of American corruption. Call them neo-noir. Chief among these was Chinatown, which vividly demonstrated the feeling of national imbalance and unease that preceded Watergate.

But however great Chinatown is, the most powerful metaphors are those revealed not on film but in life. That is what Watergate was – our quintessential noir. It was the fulfillment of the long-brewing suspicion that something essential in America had gone wrong – our institutions had failed, our leaders were deceptive and self-serving, and, perhaps, above all, our idealism had curdled.