Government will always create opportunities for corruption. And not everything that is politically influenced is corrupt—and there’s more public alertness. The orgy of excitement over faux scandals in the fall of 2013 brought home the truth that scandals are a lot of collective fun for the press— certainly more so than the details of the federal budget. The difference lies in whether there’s systematized corruption sanctioned at the highest levels—as occurred during Watergate.
The temptation—born partly out of nostalgia, partly out of dimmingmemories, and partly out of partisan revenge—has existed since Nixon to analogize real or suspected egregious actions on the part of a president or his top people to Nixon or Watergate, but nothing has come close to the pattern of illegal and abusive activities at the top of the government that went on then, directed or sanctioned by the President himself—or for which he was accountable.
Watergate wasn’t this event or that one, but a pattern of behavior, a mentality that sanctioned activities that were without precedent or successor. Nixon told David Frost, “If the president does it it isn’t illegal,” and he was surrounded by toadies that largely went along with this stunning view. It’s not clear that Nixon actually believed this throughout his presidency: he was deeply worried about being found out. Though the Watergate period was alarming, honesty requires an admission that it was also a high—that for all its deeply worrisome nature, it was an exciting time, a wild ride through history, including several moments of hilarity. But it was essentially nervous laughter, giving cover to the fact that most of us were frightened, at least some of the time, many for most of it. Power was in the hands of people who gave the clear impression that they would do anything to maintain it.
In real time, we watched with fascination as the story played out in ensuing years—as some of his aides who’d gone to jail came out devoted, proselytizing Christians. Was all to be forgiven? It was a hard sell, but not for lack of trying. Nixon’s devotees continued to play down or redefine Water- gate as a sideshow, a coup against him by his enemies. Former participants produced stacks of books, many justifying their role at the expense of others; and thereby we were treated to an extended viewing of the nest of vipers that was the Nixon White House. The Nixon family and historians contin- ued to battle over what Watergate was. Little that Nixon touched or affected escaped the long struggle over the definition of the man and his presidency.
Richard Nixon would probably be surprised and also bemused that over time he became a cult figure. It’s unarguable that Nixon was one of the most fascinating political characters in all of American history. His awkwardness and characteristic colloquialisms made him an entertaining figure. But this was a man whose long-nursed angers caused him to destroy the presidency he had sought for so long. This was a man whose drinking and consumption of unprescribed medication caused him to be out of control at critical times, and it’s doubtful that we will ever know all of them or just when they were. Was this the case when he ordered two worldwide nuclear alerts for no apparent reason from the White House residence, where he had taken refuge during deep depressions? His aides considered it the highest duty to protect him, rather than the country from him. This was a man with no real friends, no one to remind him of the boundaries. He tested the constitutional system, and it held firm through a fortuitous collection of personalities who rose to the occasion. A misfit almost all his life, he convinced some of the press time and again that he had changed, and the establishment that he was a wise man. Do we have a screen adequate to prevent such a person from again gaining power?
That is not clear.