What, In the End, Was Watergate?
Though Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator by the Watergate grand jury for having obstructed justice, it’s a major mistake to think of his role in the whole of Watergate narrowly, merely in terms of criminality—the menace and the danger were far greater. The more I looked back some years later on the kaleidoscopic events of Watergate, the clearer became a pattern of activities that amounted to an attempt to subvert the democratic process. The President of the United States intervened in and attempted to undermine the nomination of a presidential candidate by the opposition party; the extent to which he caused the outcome doesn’t matter. Nixon used the powers and prestige of the White House to obtain money to pay for his own personal goon squad. Their activities were more than objects of curiosity, and what- ever mirth (albeit nervous) they stirred at the time evanesces when they’re seen as part of the larger purpose of undermining the workings of the opposition party. That way lay fascism. And Watergate was the second greatest test of the Constitutional system in our nation’s history: was the President accountable to the Congress and the courts?
Thus, Nixon’s nearly lifelong pattern of confusing opponents for “enemies” was carried right into the White House, where there was little hesita- tion to use the instruments of power at the top of the government to spy on, harrass, “destroy” them. (George Shultz, then Treasury Secretary, did refuse to implement the use of the IRS to audit those on the enemies list, thus earning Nixon’s sobriquet “candy-ass.”)
Fortunately, the plumbers were stumblebums, more fit for Marx Brothers movies than sinister plots on the part of the President of the United States and his aides. They bungled every assignment they were given. But the comic aspect of their cloddish performances collides in the mind with their role as an off-the-books operation to carry out the President’s personal vendettas—in the process tearing up Constitutional and other long accepted restraints.
I discovered later that the plumbers’ history-making break-in of the Democratic party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972 was actually their fourth attempt to get into the DNC’s offices—and in fact their second successful entry. By now conducting break-ins was rather routine for these misguided zealots—nothing special. (Though there were various theories, it has never been settled exactly what the burglars were looking for, or why they put taps on a couple of phones, including that of party chairman Lawrence O’Brien—but in the end those aren’t important matters. The point is that this was considered an okay thing to do to the opposition party.)