Monday, August 4, 2014

Forty Years Ago

If I was a conspiracy theorist, which I am decidedly not, I would posit that the Democrats maneuvered the Watergate scandal to end right smack in the middle of the summer doldrums so that it wouldn't be drowned out by other political news. The truth is that Richard Nixon was enough to keep the story in the news for years after he resigned, so compelling a figure was he that he is still both loved as a foreign policy practitioner and loathed as a petty, selfish democratic tyrant.

The fortieth anniversary of his resignation on August 9 will find the country still in a state of political gridlock with both parties blaming the other for starting and perpetuating the problem. Television programs this week will look back on Nixon and his summer of discontent using newly released White House tapes and interviews with people who were there, and who now speak with more candor. There are a couple of new books about Watergate. The paradox is that as much as we think we know about the scandal, there is still more to learn. More people will talk. Papers stashed away with strict orders not to open them until the owner dies will reveal more. Perhaps the digital revolution will uncover the 18 and a half minute gap that has tantalized historians for forty years. These are tasty possibilities.

Watergate summer, though, can also be used as the first year of our present political troubles. Many Republicans have never forgiven Democrats for making the Watergate scandal more than what they thought it was; a minor political issue relating to the election of 1972 and nothing more. Democrats have blamed Republicans for using the Nixonian campaign manual for splitting the country and playing on white's fears of minorities and social programs that take money from middle class Americans and redistribute it to the poor.

It gets deeper. Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in part because he played a role in the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. From this point on, Supreme Court nominees have faced blistering questions about every aspect of their lives while giving stoic non-answers in reply. Democrats threatened to consider impeaching Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans made good on their promise by impeaching Bill Clinton. The current House of Representatives is suing the president over perceived unconstitutional actions. Gerrymandered seats protect representatives of both parties from having to make tough policy decisions.

Watergate and the political climate it engendered has not helped the United States. Congress did pass some reforms, but many of them have been overturned by the Supreme Court, especially the ones having to do with the corrosive influence of unregulated money in the political system. And in foreign policy, Nixon's actions helped open the door for more globalization, but we have no blueprint for a world in which the United States plays a less forceful role in international affairs.

More than half of all Americans living today were born after the Watergate scandal. That's good news because although we do need to remember and learn from the past, we also need to purge the emotion from our system. Political cultures tend to do better in the generation after a traumatic event has occurred. Ours will be no different.

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