June 19, 2012 12:08 am

The ultimate lesson of Watergate

The event taught us that the victims had better stay on their guard

Watergate, the building, is growing old, no longer a glittering address in Washington, though some fixtures of the nation’s capital, such as Bob and Elizabeth Dole, still call it home. Its smart hotel and restaurants are defunct, as is its courtyard supermarket. Across the street, the Howard Johnson motel is now a dormitory for university students, further lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.

But Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, is ageless. It was journalism’s finest hour and a pretty good one for principled politicians, judges and lawyers who dug deep in the face of much resistance. Together, they showed that “the system worked” and that not even a president was above the law. The question now is not only whether it could happen again but if the system could work as it once did. Last Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the original Watergate break-in. That was when Frank Wills, a security guard, caught five men red-handed who, it transpired, were working for the committee to re-elect the president, in the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic party’s headquarters, where they did not exactly belong.

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Jurek Martin

Wills is long dead and there were no spring chickens among the famous and the infamous who gathered to talk about Watergate in the Watergate recently. Ben Bradlee, the great Washington Post editor, is 90 now but still rakishly handsome. His ace reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are no longer young and hungry. The dark-suited Mr Woodward is a pillar of the Washington establishment, to whom the high and mighty must talk to get their side of the story out in his stream of books. Mr Bernstein, with his multicoloured socks and flowing white locks, seems comfortable in his semi-retired skin.

There is still an unlined boyishness to the face of John Dean, Nixon’s legal counsel who spilt many beans when he spoke of “the cancer on the presidency”, and Egil “Bud” Krogh, one of the original “plumbers”, still has a wicked sense of humour. Richard Ben-Veniste remains the sleek lawyer he was when, at 29, he worked for Watergate special counsels. Other political participants, Bill Cohen, Bill Weld and Fred Thompson, then the young congressman from Maine who broke Republican ranks in voting for impeachment, and the two junior congressional staffers, are familiar faces from their public lives.

It was Mr Cohen who pointed out that Watergate had happened again, in the Iran-Contra scandals of the Reagan presidency, and could repeat itself. Mr Thompson noted “the proliferation of the office of the presidency”, if anything, is worse now than in Nixon’s time. He added that without “Deep Throat”, the Woodward and Bernstein source later revealed to be Mark Felt of the FBI, all the journalistic digging might have gone nowhere.

Mr Ben-Veniste observed how much luck had played a part in unravelling Watergate’s tangled skein, above all when Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide also present at the gathering, disclosed the existence of the Oval Office tapes. Their existence revealed how much Nixon knew and when he knew it, which removed, as Mr Dean put it, the defence of “plausible deniability”.

Mr Ben-Veniste also cited Judge John J. Sirica, who refused to allow James McCord, one of those caught in the act, to cop a plea and stay silent.

Mr Cohen and Mr Thompson gave examples of how partisanship existed on Capitol Hill 40 years ago, though nothing like today’s poisonous rancour, with boasters, such as Darrell Issa, the California Republican, intent on finding dead bodies under every administration bed. The hearings of the judiciary committees headed by Senator Sam Ervin and Congressman Peter Rodino at least had the virtue of being dignified, indeed judicial.

Nobody would really say it at an event staged by the Washington Post but the sad fact is that the press is not what it was 40 years ago. Brave editors and publishers willing to withstand the heat are an endangered species and investigative journalism, expensive and time consuming, is in short supply. Also, the rulings of this Supreme Court, from Bush vs Gore to Citizens United, call into question the impartiality of the judicial system.

As Bill Weld put it, “public corruption is not a victimless crime”. The ultimate lesson of Watergate is that the victims had better stay on their guard.

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