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The Lessons of Watergate: thirty years on.

Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America. By Keith W. Olson. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003. 220 pp.

Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Retrospective. By Louis W. Liebovich. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 143 pp.

Over 30 years later and the Watergate scandal just won't go away. Should it? Have we learned the proper lessons? Indeed, have we learned any lessons?

"Presidential corruption" and "power aggrandizer" are among the persistent sobriquets hurled at the post-Watergate office. From the Iran-Contra affair of the Reagan years to the series of Clinton scandals to the power aggrandizement of the George W. Bush presidency, the occupants of the presidential office seem to skirt the law and propriety with regularity (and apparent impunity). Is that pattern the result of presidents who continue to stretch the limits of the Constitution and the law, or of citizens who are more sensitive to corruption, or of a press that serves as more of a watchdog?

In Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America, University of Maryland historian Keith W. Olson revisits the Watergate affair, covering most of the major incidents of the scandal. Olson's review of Watergate is episodic, as he jumps right into the break-in and its aftermath of cover-ups and corruption. For a reader uninitiated in the turbulent times in which Nixon governed, such an abrupt start might confuse more than enlighten. So much of Nixon the man, the president, and the administration can only be understood by examining closely the context in which Nixon governed, that failing to establish this context leaves all but the informed reader at a great disadvantage. (Olson's title for chapter 2 is "Context of the Break-In," but even here he fails to draw the reader into the circumstances of the times.)

Olson is at his best in describing events, and he is fair and balanced in covering the break-in and cover-up. Even one well steeped in the events of Watergate remains stunned when reminded of just how far Nixon and his associates were willing to go to "get their way," insure the president's reelection, and then cover up the crimes of the administration.

One of the most useful aspects of Olson's study is his examination of what constituted a constitutionally "impeachable offense" (pp. 134-37). The president and his lawyers argued that only acts of a criminal nature qualified as impeachable offenses. Yet, the House Judiciary Committee concluded that "the abuse of power, not criminality [alone], justified impeachment," and "not all presidential misconduct is sufficient to constitute grounds for impeachment. There is a further requirement--substantiality." The country would revisit this question a quarter century later during the impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton.

Olson closes by arguing that "Above all, Watergate was a predictable, though unique, expression of the contours of American politics, the imperial presidency, during the Cold War" (p. 182). But was it? Would another president have felt compelled to do as Nixon did? I hardly think so. And this points to another flaw in Olson's book: he pays little attention to the character and personality of Nixon. Was Watergate a function of an office embedded in a particular time (an imperial presidency in the Cold War)? Or, was Watergate the result of Nixon's personality and how it interacted with these turbulent times? I would argue the latter.

Watergate is a tale told often, and often well. Olson adds little that is new to our understanding of this scandal, but usefully reviews materials that should never be forgotten or buried.

Louis W. Liebovich, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois, approaches Nixon and Watergate through the lens of press relations during the Nixon years. Making good use of recently released materials and tapes, Liebovich looks at the administration's press strategy almost as a metaphor for the entire presidency of Richard Nixon. In Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press, we find the Nixon personality, his insecurities, his paranoia, his style of governing, all coming out in his relationship to the press. Nixon's attack style, his skirting of the law, and his drive to control all come to light when we look at Nixon's troubled and troubling relationship with the press.

Covering much of the same territory as Olson, Liebovich succeeds at bringing us closer to the core of Nixon the man and to his administration. Liebovich systematically examines press coverage of Watergate, concluding that although Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein often claimed that they were the only ones on the trail of the case, others also were drawn to the scent of scandal. In 1972, for example, the Post published 201 Watergate stories. Fourteen other leading newspapers published, during the same period, 315 articles (99 of them in the New York Times). While the Post did indeed lead the way, it was by no means alone in the pursuit of the Watergate story. Liebovich argues that the Post reporting was very important to the early discovery of Watergate, but over time television took over and dominated the public perceptions of Watergate. Television coverage of the Senate inquiry, the House Judiciary Committee hearings, and the ongoing coverage of Watergate meant that "the revelations seen on living-room televisions across the country.., spelled the end of the Nixon presidency ..." (p. 82).

Did Nixon order the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex? Liebovich concludes that "It was probably Nixon, under Haldeman's advice, who approved the Watergate break-in" (p. 112). Possibly, but I prefer to let the data speak, and there may be hints that Nixon ordered the break-in, but to date such "evidence" is circumstantial and inconclusive. Nixon may have ordered the break-in, but we just can't be sure, so I would err on the side of caution and suggest that while certainly plausible, we just do not know for sure who ordered the break-in.

Liebovich does a fine job of describing the long-term consequences of the Watergate scandal (pp. 120-24), asking "Why did the post-Watergate era [of slash-and-burn politics, press cynicism, public disenchantment, hyper-partisan political battles] continue for so long?" His answer is inconclusive, but he ends Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press contending that "the country has had great difficulty in reclaiming the moral high ground that was lost during Watergate. Even into the twenty-first century the effects of Vietnam and Watergate linger just beneath the surface" (p. 124). Beneath the surface? It is more like we are slapped in the face every day from the damage done during the Vietnam/Watergate era. Indeed, it is scandal without end, visited upon us in ways large and small, day after day. We have never been able to grow out of the Vietnam/Watergate age, and we suffer the consequences of this daily. We are a nastier, more cynical, less trusting, more hurtful political culture: one that spawned a Newt Gingrich, talk radio hatred, and the politics of personal destruction so evident today.

And so, what lessons have we learned from Watergate? To burn the tapes (or evidence, as then Attorney General Ed Meese did when he allowed Oliver North to shred key documents in the early stages of the Iran-Contra scandal)? To give the people "bread and circuses" as Bill Clinton did? To rely on a crisis to push a partisan agenda, as George W. Bush has done? Presidents continue to push the envelope. The press frequently is more lapdog than watchdog; the public is often asleep at the wheel of democracy; Congress seems unwilling or unable to defend its own constitutional authority in the face of a determined president.

Presidents, it seems, live by the Madisonian doctrine of grabbing for power, just as the Framers expected. But in the constitutional design setting power against power, ambition against ambition, the Congress is supposed to exert its authority against a president who grabs power. In my view, Congress has failed to live up to its end of the constitutional bargain. Presidents will continue to pursue as much power as they can get. If the system of checks and balances is not robust and lively, we can hardly expect presidents to be wallflowers and not reach for what they can get unchallenged. The lesson of Watergate is not that presidents pursue power by (nearly) whatever means are available; that much we know. Rather, it is that the public, Congress, courts, and press must serve as counterbalances to such efforts. If the counterweights are absent, we run the risk of presidential abuse of power, if not the establishment of a truly imperial presidency.

Michael A. Genovese Loyola Marymount University
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Author:Genovese, Michael A.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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