Is America in a new kind of Watergate situation of corroded systems of government power, where checks and balances are being pushed to the limit — and perhaps beyond?
I recently completed a preliminary survey of primary sources from the Watergate era, and other resources that analyze and interpret those times in their historical context. The article below is excerpted from the chapter I wrote based on those studies. Check out some of these materials, and discern and decide for yourself whether comparisons between Watergate and contemporary American politics are justified, and if so, in what aspects and to what degree. ~ brad/futuristguy
Introducing the Wider Watergate Scandals
“Breaking and entering. Wiretapping. Destruction of government documents. Forgery of State Department documents and letters. Secret slush funds. Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the ‘law and order’ administration of Richard Nixon. Sounds bad when you put it like that, huh?” ~ Political commentator and TV show host Rachel Maddow, in Watergate 40th anniversary documentary, “All the President’s Men Revisited.”
For the Field Guide chapter I wrote on discernment and decision-making, I picked the Watergate scandals as the overarching situation for case studies. These could be used to highlight many topics about toxic leaders and their sick systems. I focused on investigations conducted by teams, compositing evidences and discernments, and addressing system corruption.
Initial news of the Watergate scandal broke the summer before my senior year in high school. And then, for the next two years, Watergate-related news became almost daily fare – it seemed inescapable! Maybe that’s because details came out in dribs and drabs, and took many months before they could be glued together into a larger picture.
Maybe it was in part because – if Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were correct – there was deep betrayal of the rule of law going on by people in government, both elected and appointed. This was not the America we knew, not the America we were supposed to have, where every citizen – including those who serve us in government are subject to our laws. And so, an increasing number of everyday people were anxious to see something done to stop the political hemorrhaging.
During my early years in college, the drama continued unfolding with hearings from the Senate Select Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the Grand Jury and Special Prosecutor, and the eventual resignation of President Nixon and President Ford’s pardon of him a month later. I took an ad hoc political science course that tracked the events on a weekly basis. An interdepartmental team of political science, sociology, and media professors put together original handouts for each session, contributing resources from their areas of expertise. There were few already published materials available, as most of the specific constitutional issues hadn’t happened in 100 years, and new legal issues kept arising, too.
It was magnetic for political research geeks like me, who’d signed on to make a difference in the lives of others. The larger Watergate web of people and illicit activities made for an almost hopelessly complex puzzle with a barrelful of bits and pieces to assemble. For instance, the Congressional Quarterly’s Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis is over 1,000 full-size pages of news, analysis, and transcripts – and weighs almost five pounds! Facts on File produce three similar volumes on Watergate and the White House, totaling 950 pages and weighing over six pounds. The massive number of testimonies, documents, and transcripts presented to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment proceedings totaled a whopping 43-volume series of trade paperback sized books.
The immensity and complexity were aggravating. But, they may be precisely why Watergate is such a good case study on the importance of evidence gathering, analyzing, and interpreting – plus the roles of discernment in all of this, because discernment and decision-making are closely related.
There are two main discernment processing styles – intuitive/gut and intentional/analytical. So, it pays to get a stereoscopic view of the evidences and listen to one another in stereo as a team or community in order to make the best possible decisions that minimize unintended negative consequences. If we only look and listen in mono, we do not move our community along to where all members can understand the choices by hearing about them in ways they are “wired” to best receive and process.
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All the President’s Men
I saw All the President’s Men (1976) again recently, after not having seen it in years. In watching the special features and interviews, I realized I’d forgotten that Bob Woodward had only been with a reporter for six months when the Watergate break-in happened – and was the lowest-paid reporter on staff. Carl Bernstein had been around journalism for over 10 years by then. Both were in their late 20s when the story broke.
I believe a large part of the success for Woodward and Bernstein as a team comes from their different processing styles, plus a commitment to listen to each other and work together to solve the multitude of riddles embedded in the Watergate evidence. It also depended on their dogged persistence in going over the same questions and details again and again until they worked their way to the big picture.
I found it fascinating to see again how these two men basically had polar opposite modes of investigation analysis – i.e., “discernment” – to contribute to their paradigm-shifting work. In interviews, Dustin Hoffman (who plays Carl Bernstein) described Woodward as didactic: “A leads to B leads to C” – and be sure to have two confirmations of sources for each point before publishing! He described Carl Bernstein as very intuitive, “A leads to B leads to F leads to L” – and he was usually right, even if he didn’t have “evidence” for how he got there. Team up intentional/analytical-detail and intuitive/global-gestalt investigators, and it makes for far better work in compositing the puzzle pieces needed to get to a whole and holistic picture eventually.
For instance, the intuitive type of discernment says that if something feels “off” about a situation, follow that gut instinct until you find out or figure out what’s wrong. One intriguing aspect of the Watergate scandals is how the spin that White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler tried to put on the initial break-in backfired. He called it a “third-rate burglary.” But why were men in suits, their pockets stuffed with sequentially numbered hundred-dollar bills, caught in the Democratic National Committee offices? And some with ties to the White House via the Committee to Re-elect the President? And with sophisticated photographic and listening devices? The attempted minimization and deflection by the White House provided a clue that there must be far more to the story than just a break-in at the DNC.
Ron Ziegler’s supposed “third-rate burglary” actually revealed itself eventually as just one small layer in a very large onion of political chicanery, all with a vindictive President Richard Milhous Nixon at its core. Continued investigation confirmed the reporters’ initial hunch, and The Washington Post ended up publishing some 400 articles on the scandal. Also, the evidence eventually led to 40 government official indicted or jailed (see Watergate Casualties and Convictions), including several top officials from the White House staff or otherwise closely associated with President Nixon.
You have to wonder where America would be if all investigations had stopped after Ron Ziegler’s protective spin on the break-in, and his rebukes to the media. But they didn’t, and one end result was the resignation of President Richard Nixon. We will pick up what happened with him in Field Guide #2, when we explore constructive processes for confronting people who are responsible for abuse about their need to be accountable for their actions.
Meanwhile, I definitely recommend getting the Blu-ray Two-Disc Special Edition of All the President’s Men. It was released with additional special features for 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. Be sure to watch All the President’s Men Revisited. This about 90-minute documentary offers a well-done overview of this complex period of history and key political/social issues involved. (You may find this documentary available online.) I’d recommend watching this drama before watching the recommended documentaries. It will help you catch the intense emotions and essence of angst in the culture at that time, when new (and horrific) Watergate revelations were emerging on an almost daily basis.
Script: All the President’s Men, by William Goldman.
Book: All the President’s Men: The Greatest Reporting Story of All Time, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (2014, Reissue Edition; Simon & Schuster). There are earlier editions available, but this one has an “Afterword on the Legacies of Watergate and Richard Nixon.”
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Documentary: Dick Cavett’s Watergate
Dick Cavett’s Watergate (2014) is a documentary, about 55 minutes long. It is important historically because Dick Cavett’s show was the first non-news TV program to give much coverage to Watergate. He started just two days after the break-in when he interviewed a pre-scheduled Senator Ted Kennedy and asked his opinion on what’d happened. (Nearer to the 1972 election, Walter Cronkhite aired three long segments on the CBS Evening News to bring Americans up to speed with what Woodward and Bernstein had been writing about the previous months.)
Cavett was given highly unusual level of access to places and people related to Watergate. For instance, this documentary includes footage of broadcasts done directly from the same Senate Caucus Room where the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities met to for its investigation. (They made as clear as possible they were not conducting a trial.)
Also, it provides a great overview of the issues – in chronological order, from the break-in and cover-up, through testimonies and tapes, through the resignation and pardon. Tied into the narrative are snippets of archive footage, and also interviews Cavett conducted over the years with many of the main government officials involved in Watergate crimes and their investigations. In case you’d like a list:
Senator Ted Kennedy, Vice President Gerald Ford (before hearings to impeach President Nixon), Senator Barry Goldwater, G. Gordon Liddy, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkhite (CBS), John Ehrlichman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Stewart Alsop (Newsweek), Gore Vidal, Senator Howard Baker, Senator Lowell Weiker, Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Herman Talmadge, Martha Mitchell (mentioned in passing), Senator Sam Ervin (amazing insights), John Dean, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and President Gerald Ford (after he pardoned former President Nixon).
Various commenters – including Woodward and Bernstein, Timothy Naftali (former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum), and John Dean – share their clarifying analysis on the systemic corruption, criminality, and vengefulness of Nixon’s presidency. Timothy Naftali shares some particularly great thoughts. For instance:
On the political intrigue of the Senate hearings: It was “House of Cards on steroids.”
On systemic corruption: “There’s a debate over whether Richard Nixon actually precisely ordered the break-in at the Watergate. But he didn’t have to order it precisely to be responsible for it. Richard Nixon created a climate. He just wanted the data. He wanted it in any way possible. And he wanted a lot of it and he put pressure on them to get it. He established objectives that could only be met through illegal activity.”
Movie: Dick Cavett’s Watergate. IMDB main page.
PBS Press release for the documentary.
The full video episode – this page also includes a drop-down, printable transcript and production notes.
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Documentary: The BBC/Discovery Watergate Series
The BBC produced Watergate, a five-part documentary, in 1994. Each segment was 50 minutes. Because of the BBC’s reputation, and because it was only 20 years after the Watergate scandals, they were able to secure interviews with many of the major figures involved, though many were nearing advanced age by then. This series was repackaged by the Discovery Channel as a three-part documentary for broadcast in North America.
If you want more detail in a digestible, chronological format, this is the series for you. Once you have a basic framework of what happened with the larger Watergate scandals, this series will take you to the next level. Four hours is a lot to absorb, but it is presented in an engaging way – and Watergate was, in many ways, a combination mystery plus who-done-it crime-and-punishment drama, so the content can be inherently engaging. To find the documentary online, look for the three-part Discovery version:
- A Third Rate Burglary.
- The Conspiracy Crumbles.
- The Fall of a President.
Or the five-part BBC version:
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Resource Books on Watergate
Basic Chronological and Topical Books
The Watergate Scandal In American History, by David K. Fremon (1998; Enslow Publishers, Inc.). Specifically produced as an overview to Watergate, in language and level accessible to high school students. Republished in book and eBook in 2014 as The Watergate Scandal In United States History.
The Watergate Crisis, by Michael A. Genovese (1999; Greenwood Press). Includes a list of key players and biographies, summary annotated chronology, and extended historical overview. Then it goes into key topical issues: President Nixon’s political personality, the question of whether the president is above the law, presidential corruption in history, President Nixon’s relationship with the media, and the legacy of Watergate.
Watergate: At Issue In History, edited by William S. McConnell (2006; Greenhaven Press). This is part of Greenhaven’s “Opposing Viewpoints Series.” It includes 13 articles that grapple with complex moral, ethical, historical, and political issues arising out of the Watergate scandals. They are divided into three chapters: A Presidency on Trial, The Role of the Media in the Watergate Crisis, and The Legacy of Watergate. End matter includes a brief chronology.
Watergate: Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons, edited by William Dudley (2002; Greenhaven Press). The introduction sets the historical context of Richard Nixon’s political career, and overviews developments through his resignation and pardon, and the legacy of Watergate. Then, three chapters focus in on the Watergate chronology and its related political cartoons: A Third-Rate Burglary, The Scandal Deepens, and Fall of a President.
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Research Books: Chronologies; Transcripts; News Media Articles, Cartoons, Op-Eds
Most of the books in this section are out of print, so links may be to Amazon for reference. But for purchasing, check out various sources of used books – eBay, Abebooks, etc. – as some of these books are difficult to find. Also, be aware that some of the following titles were originally available in separate volumes and then in compilation volumes.
Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis. Originally published in two volumes by Congressional Quarterly during the Watergate years, then republished in a single volume in 1999. Main part of the book is 844 pages. Appendix reference materials (e.g., transcripts, excerpts of court decisions, annotated chronology, and index) is another 195 pages. Main book material is divided into four parts: Break-In and Senate Inquiry, White House Tapes, Impeachment Threat and Resignation, and Pardon and Cover-Up Trial.
Watergate Revisited: A Pictorial History, by John R. Woods (1985; Citadel Press). Primarily photos with brief captions, including a series of photos of New York Times front pages, and short explanatory texts about the history and people involved. There are also some key transcripts. The material is divided into five chapters: The Criminals and the Crime, The Cover-Up, The Prosecutors, The Beginning of the End, and Finale.
The Breaking of a President: The Nixon Connection, compiled by Marvin Miller (1975; Classic Publications). This is a compilation of five volumes in “a complete photo history of the rise and fall of Richard M. Nixon and his co-conspirators.” It includes reports, photographs, political cartoons, chronologies, lists, biographies, etc. It is 660 pages plus supplement with 108 pages of transcripts, 16 pages pardons/commutations lists, and 8 page index. (There is apparently no ISBN number on the compilation or on separate volumes.)
- Volume 1, A Photo History of President Nixon’s Blunders.
- Volume 2, Indictment-Impeachment, Resignation.
- Volume 3, Organized Crime Behind Nixon.
- Volume 4, The Impeachment Debate, The Damning Tapes, The Resignation, The Criminal Trials, The Pardon.
- Volume 5, The Cover-Up Trial, The New Tape Revelations, The End of the White House Gang, Behind the Rockefeller Story, The Final Act. Supplement: The Watergate Tapes. Nixon’s Pardons and Commutations.
Watergate and the White House. Three volumes produced by Facts on File, in both hardcover and paperback versions. Excerpts from the back cover: “Day-by-day developments in the Watergate affair … Editorial opinion on the Watergate affair from more than 100 American newspapers. Complete texts of the important documents. [Chronology of the decisive events. Capsule biographies of the key figures involved. A complete index with descriptive sub-entries for reference or review.”
- Volume 1, June 1972-July 1973 (246 pages). Hardcover ISBN 0871963612. Paperback ISBN 0871963523.
- Volume 2, July/December 1973 (288 pages). Hardcover ISBN 0871963531. Paperback ISBN ??
- Volume 3, January/September 1974 (416 pages). Hardcover ISBN 087196354X. Paperback ISBN ??
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Primary Document Sources
Mary Ferrell Foundation – This website includes an extensive archive on Watergate reports, multimedia, articles, transcripts, etc. Start with the main Watergate page, then check the page with Watergate Documents and Other Government Reports. They have provided an amazing, well-organized archive of public access materials. The documents page includes the following:
Senate Select Committee On Presidential Campaign Activities (“Watergate Committee”). Headed by Sam Ervin, (D-NC), the Senate Watergate Committee investigated the Watergate break-in, the ensuing cover-up, and other aspects of the Watergate scandal.
Hearings Before the House Committee on the Judiciary. The House Committee on the Judiciary, headed by Peter Rodino (D-NJ), held hearings on the Watergate break-in and related matters, including the impeachment of President Nixon.
Report of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. The WSPF was an investigatory and prosecutive agency within the Department of Justice.
Examination of President Nixon’s Tax Returns for 1969 Through 1972. The Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation produced this report.
Watergate: Congressional Hearings and Investigations: Documents, Reports, Exhibits, Transcripts, and Oral Histories. This is “43,299 pages of United States Congressional material and supporting documents related to Watergate, archived on DVD-ROM.” I do not have this resource (yet), but given the extensive number of public/government documents and transcripts related to Watergate, this looks to be an impressive compilation that makes them accessible.