It once was regarded as the premier modern threat to democratic values, an assault on the Constitution testing all the shock absorbers of American civic life, a national trial set in motion 50 years ago this week by a break-in at the Watergate apartment complex and deepened by the coverup engineered in Richard Nixon’s White House. But now the place held in history by the torturous aftermath of that bungled burglary is undergoing swift and profound change.
Donald Trump has moved into the Watergate.
And this week he will be the spotlighted, if out-of-view, star of televised hearings on Capitol Hill that promise to be the closest thing to the broadcast sessions of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities — the Watergate Committee — that parsed the presidential crimes, riveted the nation for months, and changed our politics — forever, we thought.
It is an astonishing coincidence in American history, this new, scorching self-scrutiny of the state of our democracy coming in the season for coming to grips with the last. So much has changed in the intervening decades: The nation’s faith in institutions like the Congress and the presidency has eroded severely; bipartisan politics seems an impossibility; the national attention span shortened to the length of an ad break. And the man at the center — Trump — is like nothing we have seen before in the nation’s highest office.
Richard M. Nixon felt unique in that way too — in his day. And the investigations that brought him down felt, to many if not most, essential, bitter medicine to restore our national health.
“There was the conviction that we had to put ‘Tricky Dick’ — and his practice of never playing anything straight — behind us,” said Robert Dallek, 88, a retired Boston University historian and author of nearly 20 books on American presidents. “We thought that the threat was so bad that there was a kind of glee when Nixon was brought down.”
There is no knowing how the present hearings will play out, or how the Watergate echoes will be heard, if they are audible. But the passage of a half century of history — crowded hours in which the war in Vietnam and the Cold War ended, and fresh threats to national security, national harmony, and national values emerged — has altered our perspective on Watergate, now as distant to us as the Teapot Dome was when Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, and White House legal counsel John W. Dean III helped Watergate supersede the Warren Harding years as the gravest period of scandal in American history.
“Watergate looks different through the prism of Trump,” Dean, 83, said in an interview. “Trump is Nixon on steroids and stilts. He took all of the post-Watergate norms and standards and didn’t honor any of them. Trump is a threat to democracy in a way Nixon never was.”
Trump, the 45th president was impeached (twice); Nixon, the 37th, avoided impeachment by resigning. Trump pushed to overturn the 2020 election and called on Vice President Mike Pence to invalidate several states’ electoral votes. Nixon as vice president took no steps in 1961 to overturn his own razor-thin loss to John F. Kennedy, though he later won from his own vice president, Gerald Ford, a pardon for his crimes. Trump wanted to destroy governmental institutions; Nixon wanted to employ them to his ends but not to obliterate them. Trump sought to undermine the established conventions of electoral politics; Nixon was a student of them, and sought to master them.
Both men won the White House in close elections and were received with hostility in the capital; Nixon tried to make Washington work to his ends while Trump went to war with Washington.
A margin note written in Nixon’s own hand on one of the early drafts of his 1969 inaugural address read simply: “I believe in this country.”
It is a sentiment that was fragile by the end of his truncated second administration and was again in serious jeopardy by the end of the second decade of this century.
“Our current state of affairs and all of the questioning of the basic institutions casts the whole Watergate thing in a different light,” said Dwight Chapin, 81,who was Nixon’s appointments secretary, in an interview. “It is not to proclaim the president’s innocence but to put it in perspective. It was a different era. Nixon fought with the Democrats over legislation, sure, but there was a more friendly context to politics then. The Democrats came to the White House every week, and I know that because I put those meetings on the schedule. Right now it would be big national news if Biden meets with Republicans.”
For months, as the scandal billowed, Nixon apologists insisted that the Watergate affair was really a partisan distraction, a minor capital contretemps involving what White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler characterized at the time as a “third-rate” burglary. That phrase took on an ironic tone as the scandal deepened, revealing a concerted coverup effort, money laundering, the bugging of opponents, the politicization of the FBI and the IRS, the crude presidential language recorded on secret White House tapes, and the unexplained but suspicious disappearance of more than 18 minutes of those recordings.
Now, however, perspectives have changed, and so has the meaning of Ziegler’s description of the original crime.
“Watergate finally does look like a third-rate burglary compared to Trump,” said former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, who was a lawyer on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee that approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon. “President Nixon didn’t understand that you can’t say things to the American people that aren’t true — but several Republicans went to him in the White House and said he had to resign. That never happened on any of the scores of times when Trump was president. Back in the 1970s it was unthinkable for a president to lie in public. President Trump made that the norm.”
Watergate was less an event than a process — and a procession of developments, beginning with a break-in but including, by the time its many probes and its many prosecutions were finished, a series of dirty tricks, the manipulation of money, a full-scale coverup operation that was more felonious than the events it was designed to obscure.
Through it walked a series of colorful characters, including perhaps the most prepared figure for the presidency since the first six chief executives themselves (Nixon), a madcap political saboteur (Donald Segretti), a bumbling burglar (James McCord), a onetime country lawyer who as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee emerged as a rusticated sage (Sam Ervin), a loony truth-telling political wife (Martha Mitchell), two crusading journalists (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein), two stolid aides who built a “Berlin Wall” around the president (John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman), the leader of a run-amok group known as the “plumbers” (G. Gordon Liddy), a crackpot plotter seeking hush money (E. Howard Hunt), two Massachusetts lawyers who became heroes (Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox) — and many others, more than three dozen of whom, including Dean and Chapin, went to prison.
It was one part comic opera, one part Shakespearean tragedy, but it was a wholly transformative moment in American history, a scandal-of-the-century farrago of interlocking crimes that ruined a presidency and shook a nation. Its effects — even the language it created — are with us still.
“It’s important to measure everything in its own time, and in its own time it was very serious because you had the head of the government deeply involved in a series of crimes,” said former senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, the last surviving member of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate and the first Republican to call for Nixon to relinquish his office. “The president did resign — that’s the greatest measure of its seriousness. It clearly cleaned up corruption in government and a lot of it lasted to this day.”
The elements of our political life that can be traced to Watergate are manifold:
We are more vigilant about abuse of power. Federal laws regulate the influence of money in politics, even if the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision eroded their reach. Mistrust of government, at stratospheric levels in the wake of Watergate, has grown more corrosive still. The conviction that politicians are, by definition, cynical and likely corrupt remains strikingly common.
“Watergate stamped ‘corruption’ on politics forever,” said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic political pollster. “You mention the word ‘politician’ and people think negatively about their ethics. People think politicians are driven by money, and money means corruption.”
The idioms of scandal that grew out of the Watergate scandal remain with us. Politicians who resist coming clean are “stonewalling.” Words and phrases that are discouraged in public conversation are indicated with the term “expletive deleted” — a usage born of the crude recorded dialogue of Nixon and his circle. The practice of mixing revelations with disinformation is still described as “a modified limited hang out,” an unfortunate, inelegant phrase injected into American argot by John Ehrlichman in a 1973 White House Watergate strategy session with Nixon and Dean.
And we still ask, as Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee did in June 1973, what the president knew, and when did he know it.
“These terms have acquired a life of their own,” said Melvin Dubnick, for many years a University of New Hampshire specialist in political accountability. “They are permanent parts of our language. ‘Watergate’ now is more than a place. It is part of popular culture, and the ‘-gate’ suffix has never disappeared from our speech.”
Watergate thrust into politics 49 new House members who were known as “Watergate Babies.” Four of them, including Paul Tsongas of Lowell, would run for president. Six of those new House members, including Tsongas and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, would become senators. Many of them would consider themselves lifelong reformers. One of them, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, is still in office at age 82, though he has said he will retire early next year.
“A lot of us, including me, probably wouldn’t have won except for the reaction to Watergate,” said Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who eventually moved from the House to the Senate. “But we did win, and we changed the tenor of the House. ... We invigorated debate on the floor. We weren’t afraid to speak up, and we continued to speak up.”
But it wasn’t only the Watergate Babies who were affected by Watergate.
So marked was he by his involvement on the Judiciary Committee staff examining Watergate that Weld switched his legal focus from corporate law to criminal law. “That experience was the beginning of everything for me,” he said. “The Watergate investigation was one great big criminal investigation.” He ran for state attorney general, lost, but was appointed US attorney by Ronald Reagan and then as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s criminal division — important stepping stones to his more than six years as governor.
History doesn’t neatly repeat itself, and the view of historical events often changes with the passage of time. It is an organic process that, for example, transformed Woodrow Wilson from a visionary figure to a naive one, and revealed him as a racist, too. Harry Truman moved the other way, from an underestimated figure whose crisp leadership in the post-war maelstrom now draws admiration from many historians. Lyndon Johnson still is in motion, the villain of Vietnam but also the big-hearted, big-thinking figure of the Great Society — though LBJ’s social programs have long been disparaged by conservative thinkers as drags on the economy and a false promise to the poor.
So it is with Watergate at age 50. A great re-evaluation is underway among commentators, historians, and especially the dwindling remnant of the Nixon inner circle.
“With the exception of people like Liddy, who had a special mental outlook, I view it as a bunch of guys thinking they’d just spy on the other side and sneak around to get some kind of an advantage,” said Ken Khachigian, a longtime Nixon aide who at age 30 retreated with the president to San Clemente in Nixon’s political exile to help him write his memoir. “I can’t say I’m all that shocked at what Nixon did and I hope people remember that with the books he wrote and the counsel he gave to presidents he made a big contribution in his post-presidency.”
But personal redemption and historical revisionism are different matters.
Time has not worn the grime off the crimes of Watergate. In his “Watergate: A New History,” published in February, Garrett M. Graff describes the original conspiracy as “deliberate, a sloppy and shambolic but nonetheless developed plan to subvert the 1972 election
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Shepard, who spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff, has argued in a series of books that there was a separate Watergate conspiracy, one involving, as he put it in his most recent volume, published last year, “a hostile media, partisan Democrats, and a deep-state network of operatives across the government [who] cooked up their all-out efforts to force a popular president from office.”
As recently as October, Shepard initiated a complaint with the Justice Department charging that Watergate investigators and prosecutors violated due process by holding side meetings with the judges on the case, and suppressing exculpatory evidence and witness testimony.
While scholars generally believe Nixon’s resignation spared the country further political upheaval — a notion affirmed by Gerald R. Ford when he became president and proclaimed that “our long national nightmare is over” — Shepard contends that Nixon’s resignation was unnecessary.
“He ‘had to resign’ because the ‘smoking gun’ tape as it was interpreted by his defense team was so devastating, appearing to show that Nixon was in on the coverup from the very beginning,” Shepard said.
“What he was accused of doing,” he continued, “was nothing compared to what other presidents did before and afterwards.”
From the distance of five decades, we see Watergate with fresh clarity — but we also see our own time more clearly.
“There had been a lot of government overreach over the years and there has been much much more since,” said Khachigian, the Nixon aide, “so the context has widened dramatically.”
Watergate occurred at a time when leaders of both parties generally believed government could perform a positive role in society. We remember Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as a government offensive against poverty, hunger, and injustice, but we largely forget that the Nixon administration that followed felt, at least in the beginning, like one that sought to build on those initiatives. The 37th president may have dragged his party to the right but in office he often leaned to the left. The early Nixon domestic policy team was fueled with innovative, progressive ideas, including environmental initiatives, an overhaul of the health care system, even a guaranteed income plan much like the one Nixon pilloried his 1972 rival, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, for proposing.
“For those of us working on domestic and social policy, it was our Camelot,” said John Roy Price, a Nixon domestic-policy aide whose account of Nixon in those years, “The Last Liberal Republican,” was published last June. “We truly believed we were working on important issues, using and rationalizing the powers of government to meet people’s needs. The difference between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump was that Nixon took policy seriously and that, despite his frequent dyspepsia about bureaucracy, he believed Washington had a central and crucial role to play.”
That is a crucial element of context for Watergate, for the scandal, paired with America’s experience in Vietnam, shattered the country’s confidence in government, opening the way to a Republican president who believed “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” (Ronald Reagan, 1981); to a Democratic president who proclaimed that “the era of big government is over” (Clinton, 1996); and eventually to a Republican president who was determined to “drain the swamp” (Trump, 2016) and then filled it to overflowing.
And just as the upheaval that accompanied the ascendancy of Donald Trump was a reflection of important changes in America, so, too, were the Watergate years.
“The Vietnam War was still very raw,” said David Eisenhower, the University of Pennsylvania historian who, as Nixon’s son-in-law, witnessed the president firsthand during this period. “This was a period of the country making a clean break with the past.”
The pervasive sense, Eisenhower said, was that the nation needed to cleanse its politics, but that never really occurred, in part because the “lessons of Watergate” were both never specifically codified and never learned.
But there was one overriding lesson of Watergate that did take root — and is at the root of the debate over those long-ago events and over Trump and Trumpism today. It is this: The honor of the country is not to be toyed with, not by anyone but especially not by the president.
This animating principle of American civic life was placed by the founders unobtrusively and yet unavoidably in the very last line of Declaration of Independence, ratified by men in knee breeches but applicable to every breach of faith since: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
For those who govern in a democracy, there are no real governors on their behavior that are nearly as robust as a sense of honor. Laws are bendable, guidelines are unenforceable. The country’s tax system is based on honor, our rules of personal comportment in our homes and neighborhoods are based on honor, and so — Watergate taught us in a lesson that for 50 years we have resisted learning — is our political life.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.