It may have been 50 years since the Watergate story, and many young people may not know much about the scandal, but it is one that still reverberates across history. And, with questions of classified documents in the wrong hands, destruction of evidence, and financial wrongdoings still swirling in the news, the lessons of Watergate are more timely than ever.
Thus it was that Professor Yawn and I embarked on a panel moderated by Evan Smith and featuring Garret Graff, author of Watergate: A New History. For me, not knowing much about Watergate, it was quite the learning experience. According to Graff, Watergate wasn’t a single scandal: it was a series of scandals, and, in fact, the Watergate break-in was just (more or less) the last among several illegal and unethical decisions made by the Nixon team.
Many of these are only understandable as part of the larger picture. Here’s an example: As far as history can fully demonstrate, Nixon only ordered one break-in. It was to the Brookings Institution, and it was never pulled off. The motivation for such an act was that Nixon believed that Brookings possessed evidence of a prior wrongdoing. By blowing up the Institution, he could destroy the evidence (assuming it wasn’t copied).
What followed was an outlandish plan involving guys dressed as fireman going into the building, setting up explosives, and driving away in a firetruck as the explosion occurred. What squelched the plan, according to Graff, was not its illegality, but the cost of a used firetruck.
Many comparisons were made to the Trump administration. To Graff, there are several key distinctions in the aftermath: (1) key Republicans (e.g., Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush, and Barry Goldwater) confronted Nixon about his wrongdoing, and encouraged him to step down for the good of the country; and (2) Nixon went away.
Also of interest was Graff’s discussion of how much the movie All the President’s Men impacted our understanding of history and politics. He says many Americans were disappointed when “Deep Throat” was finally revealed in 2005, and the real-life character, Mark Felt, didn’t look more like Hal Holbrook. Also, Jason Robards, who portrayed WAPO Editor Ben Bradlee in the film, would tap his ring finger on the table or other surfaces. That was his invention, not something Bradlee actually did. That is, until Bradlee saw the film. After seeing Robards tap his ring finger, Bradlee adopted the mannerism!
Graff lingered after the session, answering questions and discussing his book with the audience members. I met “Dr. Janice,” and she and got photos with Mr. Graff!
And, with the ominous lessons of Watergate in mind, we headed off to hear more about politics and the media at the Texas Tribune Festival, more aware than ever of contemporary parallels to historical precedent.