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The meaning of Watergate
A half-century later
Fifty years ago the five men arrested at the Watergate office complex in Washington in June 1972 were awaiting trial for attempted burglary and illegal wiretapping. Their case had already aroused the interest of reporters, especially Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, who had linked them to the Republican campaign to reelect Richard Nixon as president. Such suspicions as the matter had raised didn’t keep Nixon from winning in a landslide, but the trial and the continued reporting undercut the president’s claim that he had nothing to do with what his press secretary dismissed as a “third-rate burglary.”
Nixon had hardly been re-inaugurated in early 1973 when the investigations intensified, with the Senate holding televised hearings and a special prosecutor conducting a probe of his own. Nixon pleaded executive privilege to cover his tracks, but finally the Supreme Court ruled that he had to release tape recordings of White House meetings that placed him at the heart of the coverup. Informed by senior Republicans in Congress that he wouldn’t survive impeachment, Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974.
No president had ever resigned. This alone made Watergate a big deal. But it was bigger than that, as became apparent during the following years and decades. Watergate was a watershed between two eras in American history: the liberal half-century that preceded it, and the conservative half-century that has followed.
Here some definitional reminders are in order. In the 1970s, to be a liberal in American politics meant you looked to government to solve big issues facing the American people: poverty, racial discrimination, pollution, workplace hazards, unequal access to education and healthcare, and the like. Conservatives resisted this tendency, preferring to let the private sector work things out. Some conservatives sought to roll back existing government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, but others settled for preventing new ones.
Certain issues that would subsequently divide liberals (or progressives, when that old label was revived) from conservatives—abortion, immigration, gay and transgender rights, police funding, critical race theory—either hadn’t surfaced or didn’t land clearly on one side or the other of the liberal/conservative divide as it then existed.
Yet on the basic question of the optimal size of government, Watergate was a turning point. The liberal confidence in bigger government rests on a belief that government—which is to say, government officials—generally try to do the right thing. As the Watergate affair came to light in all its sordidness, Americans learned that the officials of their government at the very highest levels had not been doing the right thing, and in fact had been doing their utmost to keep other government officials from doing the right thing.
Actually, the liberal confidence in government rested on a second pillar, situated right next to the first. Government officials not only must try to do the right thing; they must succeed, at least most of the time. Watergate wasn’t merely sordid; it was feckless, in that the burglars really were third-rate and their bosses no better. If the coverup had worked, liberal confidence in government might have persisted, because the scandal wouldn’t have blown up the way it did.
Watergate wasn’t the only thing undermining faith in government. The political scandal was closely connected—chronologically and causally—with the American defeat in Vietnam. The White House “plumbers” had been created to stop leaks relating to American foreign policy. The Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the war in Vietnam that was leaked to the press during Nixon’s first term, revealed not only that the government had been lying about progress in the war but also that it couldn’t keep secrets. Nixon was about to unveil his opening to China, and he was sorely—and not unreasonably—afraid his plans would be leaked and the initiative spoiled.
Nixon resigned before the final communist offensive in the spring of 1975 made undeniably clear that the American war in Vietnam had failed. Sixty thousand Americans had died to no avail. If Watergate revealed government’s bad faith and incompetence at home, Vietnam did the same regarding American foreign policy.
Moreover, Watergate made the American defeat definitive. The 1973 peace accords allowed America to continue to provide weapons and support to South Vietnam. But Nixon’s demise and departure left no one in the White House committed to Saigon’s cause. When the end came, Saigon’s pleas fell on ears unwilling to listen.
The double whammy erased the confidence Americans had had in their government. That confidence originated during the Great Depression, when Americans first learned to look to government for help during hard times. It was reinforced by America’s victory in World War II, an enormous accomplishment that sent Americans’ faith in their government to record levels. It underwrote the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which enhanced the moral credibility of the federal government in a way nothing previous had.
Possibly the confidence would have dissipated on its own. Inflation, caused in part by chronic federal deficits, slowed the growth of the American economy and made voters nervous and surly. In politics the operative question is always: What have you done for me lately? Liberals had to keep promising until they promised too much. Maybe they already had by the mid-1970s.
Whatever the components of the collapse of faith in government, it opened the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 on a less-government-is-better platform. Reagan famously declared government to be not the solution to America’s problems, but the problem itself.
Ever since then, new government programs, which had appeared by the dozens during the 1930s and the scores during the 1960s, came rarely and with great difficulty. Bill Clinton, a Democrat and chastened liberal, declared the age of big government over, and George W. Bush spoke of privatizing Social Security. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was the signal liberal accomplishment of the post-Watergate era, and it has been fighting for its life since passage in 2010. Joe Biden entered office with hopes of leveraging concern over covid and climate change into big new initiatives; he has had to settle for very modest reforms.
Eras in politics don’t last forever. In time we’ll enter a post-post-Watergate age. But for now the shadow of that bungled burglary still lies long across the landscape.