40 years after Watergate, lessons are ignored

We need to recall the lessons of Watergate.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the break-in that sparked the scandal. By the time the scandal had run its course, President Nixon had resigned in disgrace but the democratic institutions of the country were strengthened. The rule of law was upheld, our free press played its role and our politicians came together, regardless of party, and smacked down the wrongdoers.

On June 17, 1972, five men with some connection to the Republican Party were arrested while bugging the offices of the Democratic Party located in the Watergate hotel and apartment complex in Washington, D.C. The men were working for The Committee To Re-elect the President.

The Nixon administration sought to cover up its connection to the burglars. It offered hush money to individuals to not cooperate. It lied to the media and to the public. And Nixon tried to get the FBI to not investigate the crime in violation of the law.

Luckily, the media didn’t go away. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, young reporters with the Washington Post, were relentless in pursuit of the story.

But even with top-flight media coverage, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide that fall. Yet the truth kept chipping away at him.

By 1973, the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, in a show of solidarity, voted 77-0 to form a committee to investigate Watergate. By March 1974, numerous top-level administration officials were indicted for hindering the Watergate investigation. Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

By that summer, it came out that Nixon had recorded all conversations in the White House Oval Office for years. The tapes revealed he was aware of his administration’s involvement in the actual break-in and he sought to cover it up.

Nixon was done. Facing certain impeachment, he resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

Watergate made it clear that no one, including the president, is above the law. Also, the media did its job and held the most powerful officials accountable. Moreover, Watergate was a moment when the Democrats and Republicans put country and democracy above partisan pettiness.

Since then, though, these lessons seem to have gotten lost.

We’ve had several presidents who've acted as though they were above the law.

President Reagan was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and paid no price for it. President George W. Bush ordered torture, even though that was against the law, and got away with it. And President Obama has asserted the right to assassinate anyone, including U.S. citizens, overseas, and he appears to be paying no price for that, either.

Meanwhile, the press is much less powerful today than it was during Watergate. The Internet has decimated newspapers, and much of the media is more concerned with having a shouting match than with digging out the facts.

For its part, Congress is mired in partisanship.

Forty years after the break-in at the Watergate, our democratic institutions need to be put in better working order or we risk more abuses at the hands of the executive branch.

Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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