Political scandal has colored the front page of newspapers consistently for decades, and even more so in the past few years. The obsession over being on the “right side” has polarized the entire country and the actions of our leaders reflect back onto us, bleeding out into the rest of the world. Nearly every news outlet has an angle when journalists are supposed to be objective. The more shocking the headlines, the more clicks on the article. However, what may not be as obvious to an everyday American is that there was a clear starting point in the obsession with political scandal: Watergate. Before this time, the press tended to respect the private lives of government officials, even when it came to shady backdoor deals or surveillance (Schudson 1324).
In this article, we will be exploring the before and after of Watergate. It will discuss how the mindset of American politicians and the American public ultimately led to Watergate, and the effect the incident had on the public then and how it still affects us now. It will analyze these concepts by looking at the loss of trust in the government from the American people, the importance of the role of journalism, and the rise of obsession with political scandal. This argument will be separated into three parts: Nixon and the Paranoid Style, Watergate and the Popularization of Political Scandal.
NIXON AND THE PARANOID STYLE
To understand how this vast chasm formed between the people and the government, and within the government itself, we must start with Nixon’s rise to the presidency and how his mindset became one of intense paranoia.
The American public’s dissatisfaction with the government was already coming to a head during the Vietnam War. The rise of television brought the war to their doorstep (Streitmatter 171). According to Rodger Streitmatter, the “violence, carnage, and human suffering” of war was something the American public had never been exposed to so vividly before (171). Therefore, those who were watching these atrocities unfold on television were horrified, and became frustrated that these young men kept dying in a war that increasingly seemed to be “immoral and senseless” (Streitmatter 171).
As a result, the American people were already weary and wary of the government going into Nixon’s presidency. As for Nixon, there were numerous events in his life that led to his paranoia, which eventually led to his downfall.
Nixon rose to stardom because of his success in the Alger Hiss case (Hughes, 2007). The case was centered on an investigation of a spy ring that was integrated in the government during the New Deal era (Hughes, 2007). This case boosted Nixon’s career significantly, but it also made him partial to conspiracy theories that would lead to his paranoia as president (Hughes, 2007). In the Nixon White House Tapes, he would constantly refer back to this case as if it was the foundation of his ideology, and would use specific instances from that case to justify his infamous prejudice against Jewish people (Wills, 1974). Nixon is heard constantly referring to an ominous ‘they’ in the White House Tapes (Wills, 1974). According to New York Times journalist Garry Wills:
“Humiliation, it turns out, was his weapon—what he could blame on others, feeling the resentment that gave him his greatest sense of identity. His power came from a shared sense of powerlessness with the “silent majority,” the silenced and oppressed victims of an undefined but omnipresent “they.” When he summoned up the Hiss case, it was to remember how “they” destroyed Chambers. And he was always summoning up the Hiss case” (1974).
During the Hiss case, Nixon used the press to his advantage (Wills, 1974). Nixon was well aware of the fact that since the case was so huge, journalists tended to sensationalize it (Wills, 1974). He also had no problem using leaks and leaked information to further his agenda (Wills, 1974). Nixon went from using the press to his advantage to seeing the press as a nemesis (Wills, 1974). In other words, according to Wills, “Nixon was brought down with weapons he had forged for use against the White House in 1948” (1974).
If you look closely enough, it’s clear that even before Nixon, people were picking up on paranoia in politics; in fact, this was directly addressed in an essay by Richard J. Hofstadter in November 1964, called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Hofstadter, 1964). In it, Hofstadter explored the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” of certain politicians, and how it seemed to be becoming a trend (1964). He specifically pointed out infamous politicians and groups with this mindset, such as Senator McCarthy, anti-Catholic groups, and anti-Masonry groups.
In Kenneth Hughes’s essay for the History News Network, he references Holfstadter’s essay in relation to Nixon, declaring that Nixon was a prime example of the paranoid style (2007). Hughes uses Holfstadter’s idea that a politician who fell into this paranoid archetype tended to emulate the very person they condemned (2007). Hughes said, “Had he lived long enough to hear the Nixon tapes, Hofstadter could have added to the list an anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, anti-Ivy League president arrogantly putting himself above the law” (2007). The White House Tapes show Nixon’s obvious prejudice against Jewish people, the educated, and the elite (Hughes, 2007). In an op-ed written in 2012 for The Washington Post, the famous Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward said, “Publication of the [Pentagon Papers] in the New York Times, the Washington Post […] had sent Nixon into rants and rages, recorded on his tapes, about Ellsberg, the antiwar movement, the press, Jews, the American left and liberals in Congress — all of whom he conflated” (Bernstein and Woodward 2012).
Nixon was scarred by what happened to Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. The public tore Johnson’s actions apart as they were barraged with constant footage of the war on television (Streitmatter 175). Johnson’s frustration with how Vietnam was being aired by television networks is shown in the aftermath of Fred Friendly airing the Morley Safer footage of American soldiers, seemingly careless, destroying a Vietnamese village (Streitmatter 176-177). After watching it, Lyndon called Friendly and said, “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” (Streitmatter 177).
Additionally, Nixon was still getting over his major loss to John F. Kennedy during the first televised presidential debate (History.com, “The Kennedy-Nixon Debates”). This is quite ironic, as Nixon was one of the first politicians to really use television to his advantage with his Checkers speech (Wills, 1974). Nixon had also been extremely successful against Jerry Voorhis in public debates, so when the opportunity arose to take on Kennedy, he had no reason to fear (Wills, 1974). Many people who listened to it on the radio had thought Nixon won; however, those who watched it on television had thought Kennedy won (Botelho, 2016). With the rise and importance of television during this time, Kennedy won over America with that debate (Botelho, 2016). According to Botelho, this not only marked a turning point in how American’s consumed their news, but it made politics more of a “spectator sport” (2016). This is clearly still the case today and the current culture shows it: obsession with constant connection, surveillance, and drama. This culture became more and more normalized throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies and came to a head with Watergate, the first major political scandal.
June 17, 1972 was the beginning of the end. Five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee offices by D.C. police (Streitmatter 194). On June 18, 1972, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline “Five Held in Plot to Bug Democratic Offices Here” (Lewis, 1972). It was correctly assumed that these men were attempting to plant bugs inside the building (Streitmatter 194). Woodward and Bernstein reported that White House press secretary at the time, Ronald Ziegler, stated “Certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it was,” and claimed it was nothing but a “third-rate burglary” (Bernstein and Woodward, 2012). The Washington Post was one of the first newspapers to pick up the story, and continued to be one of the only newspapers investigating the story for six months thereafter (Streitmatter 194). Two young Washington Post journalists took the reins on the incident and investigated it until the end. These men were Carl Bernstein and Robert “Bob” Woodward.
On June 21, 1972, an editorial published by The Washington Post eerily eluded to what was to come, stating, “…the finger naturally points, in a time of intense and developing political combat, to the Democrats’ principal and natural antagonist; that is to say, it points to somebody associated with or at least sympathetic to – we may as well be blunt about it – the Republicans” (“Editorial: Mission Incredible,” 1972).
Two days later, Woodward and Bernstein reported that a GOP security aide was involved. Former attorney general John Mitchell (who also happened to be the leader of Nixon’s re-election campaign) came into the spotlight, claiming he had no part in it (“The Watergate Story – Timeline”). By early August, Woodward and Bernstein connected the Nixon campaign to the burglary: a cashier’s check for $25,000 “apparently earmarked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign” was deposited by one of the men involved (Streitmatter 191).
After that, things started unravelling quickly. In September, Woodward and Bernstein revealed that John Mitchell “controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats” during his time as attorney general (Bernstein and Woodward, “Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund”). The FBI confirmed that the break-in “stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President” (Bernstein and Woodward, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats”). That was the ace – the dynamic duo had connected a burglary that initially nobody thought twice about to the biggest political scandal in history.
Other significant details were released as the story unfolded, including Nixon having a secret recording device that was placed in the Oval Office (Meyer, 1973). The whirlwind of Watergate hit its peak with the White House’s refusal to turn over the tapes (Kilpatrick, 1973).
At this point, every newspaper was publishing their two cents on the scandal. I admire Woodward and Bernstein for sensing it from the start and having the work ethic to keep hacking at it until the truth it finally revealed. From what I can tell, this is why Bernstein and Woodward still reign supreme today and are seen as two of the most iconic journalists in history.
A significant source in their search for the truth was Deep Throat, who was named after a popular pornographic film at the time (Streitmatter 193). This source, who was later revealed to be W. Mark Felt (the second highest official in the FBI at the time), was a good friend of Woodward before the scandal (Streitmatter 193-94). Deep Throat would not necessarily give Woodward new information, rather, he would confirm or deny any information that Woodward already had (Streitmatter 193).
Forty years on, Woodward reflects on their investigative strategies during an interview with NPR:
“This was a strategy that Carl developed: Go see these people at home at night when they’re relaxed, when there are no press people around. When the time is limitless to a certain extent and you’re there saying, ‘Help me. I need your help,’ which are the most potent words in journalism. And people will kind of unburden themselves, or at least tell part of the story.” (NPR, 05:30 – 05:57)
In the scope of the research done for this study, it seems that Woodward and Bernstein never referred to Watergate as a “scandal.” During their investigation, they simply reported the facts, and those tended to speak for themselves. The duo reflected on this in a 2014 talk called “Inside the White House from Nixon to Obama,” saying, “People keep hammering home that we had an ax to grind against Richard Nixon. That’s what hurt the most. We just went where the facts led us” (Shatzman, 2014).
In 2012, Watergate hit its 40th birthday. Naturally, Woodward and Bernstein had garnered a lot of attention. In an op-ed printed for The Washington Post on June 8, 2012, Woodward and Bernstein expressed frustration that there seemed to be a consensus that the sins of the cover-up outweighed the sins of the crime (Bernstein and Woodward, 2012). The duo claimed that that idea was an injustice, and said, “At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law” (Bernstein and Woodward, 2012).
It was one of Nixon’s convictions to take down and discredit the press from the publication of the Pentagon Papers and on throughout the Watergate incident (Bernstein and Woodward, 2012). Nixon was livid with the press, and Woodward and Bernstein reported him saying the following in one of the White House Tapes:
‘The press is your enemy,’ Nixon explained five days later in a meeting with Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to another tape. ‘Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin’” (2012).
THE POPULARIZATION OF POLITICAL SCANDAL
According to Schudson, “The Watergate scandal became the symbol of the power of the press in American society. For journalists, it became the defining emblem of the vital role of the press in democracy” (2004). As discussed earlier, Nixon’s distaste for the press seems to be a direct result of his prejudice, paranoia, and the fact that he knew that investigative journalists were a threat to his overall corrupt surveillance initiative. This shows how important the role of objective investigative journalism was then and is now. If we should have learned anything, it’s that if a politician feels threatened by the press, there is probably something (s)he is covering up that (s)he doesn’t want the public to know about, and that cannot stand.
One major cultural observation in the aftermath of Watergate comes from a study by Troy Zimmer. It was revealed that the actions of the President have even greater effects on the public than just how they view their government (749). The study proposes that if the President is revealed to be morally compromised in any number of ways, the public will relate those findings to their own lives (Zimmer 749). The study states, “It is now clear that a significant portion of the pubic responds to the media revelations such as Watergate by transforming their pleasure or displeasure at the news content into biased evaluations of the competency and fairness of the messengers of the content” (Zimmer 749). This means, according to the study, that those who had voted for Nixon had more of a negative attitude towards the press than those who voted for McGovern (Nixon’s opponent) did (Zimmer 749). It was interesting to me that this revealed that a portion of the public turned on the press rather than the man who committed the crime. This continues to happen even today.
The American public had been growing frustrated with their government since the Vietnam War, and after Watergate, how were they supposed to believe politicians had anyone but their own best interest in mind (Schudson 2004)? Suzanne Garment, who wrote the book Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, said, “The prosecutions of all these scandals is meant to raise the tone of government. But you’re going to keep good people out of office and alienate the public” (Benatar, 1991). I believe Garment hit the bullseye with this quote – the scandal does alienate the public, because it’s hard to know what is a dramatization and what is the truth.
In fact, Geoff Shepard, who was a member of Nixon’s defense team during the trials, has a different perspective on Watergate and the aftermath (“Geoff Shepard: An Alternative View Of Watergate”). He argued that the incident was so dramatically publicized that Nixon’s opponents ran with it, and he claimed this was because they were only concerned with destroying the credibility of the Republican party before the next election rather than getting the truth from the Senate Watergate Committee (“Geoff Shepard: An Alternative View Of Watergate”). The second part of his argument was that the trial was corrupt and the committee abused their power so badly that he claimed the whole case against Nixon could be thrown out (“Geoff Shepard: An Alternative View Of Watergate”). However, whether Shepard can be considered a credible source is highly debatable considering how close he was to the case.
It is clear that the popularity of scandal reigns even today. As tired as the argument is, it seems plausible that it stems from social media. Even within our immediate social circles, surveillance, connection and scandal reign supreme – whenever anybody does anything remotely outside of the norm, people hear about it, whether you want to or not. Perhaps we unconsciously transfer this same expectation to public figures, be it celebrities or politicians. As the internet grew and we were able to expand our spectatorial scope to other people’s lives, it makes sense why we would feel entitled to know what public figures were doing at all times.
As technology advances, an increasing amount of information is released about back-door political deals and decisions they make that concern the public, and that information is now able to be more widely spread. It’s ironic, because it seems these things have always happened in the political sphere – it’s not as if Nixon was the first president or the last to commit a shady crime, big or small. It’s just with this age of technology, they have a harder time getting away with it.
Furthermore, our esteemed two party system has figured out how to use the American public’s desire for scandal to benefit their own political agenda. Paul Brandus of Yahoo News reflected this frustration in 2013:
“Let’s take the ongoing Benghazi saga. The White House, trying for a change to get in front of the controversy, released more than 100 pages of emails sent in the frantic aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attack. They showed that Republicans, trying to fan the flames of scandal, created a scandal of their own by doctoring key portions of text that had been leaked to the media. Republicans fired back that there were key gaps in what the administration actually released” (Brandus, 2013).
In conclusion, two things happened in the aftermath of Watergate – the people’s trust in their government was severed, and the popularity of television (and further technology) was on the rise. If the people think that politicians are committing crimes and withholding dirty secrets, why wouldn’t we use the surveillance of technology to our advantage? The downside to this is that the highest office in the land is supposed to be a symbol of the American image; a respected, prestigious seat to occupy. How are we supposed to maintain that idea when we do not trust politicians? How are we supposed to hold our president in high regard when there are memes flying around mocking him/her every day?
If you’re not convinced — since Watergate, the American public has become obsessed with political scandal: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the Iran-Contra Scandal, and the countless examples available from Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. In fact, Trump and his team are using the American public’s obsession with scandal to their advantage so lazily and obviously, we all know it. If you take a look at President Trump’s Twitter, it becomes quite clear what he is trying to achieve. He is taking the one institution that is supposed to be delivering the truth to the public, and turned it on its head. Trump made an enemy of the press to win the hearts of America’s working class (Taibbi, 2017). As Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone put it:
“We have to remember that the unpopularity of the press was a key to Trump’s election. Journalists helped solve the billionaire’s accessibility problem by being a more hated group than the arrogant rich. Trump has people believing he shares a common enemy with them: the news media. When we do badly, he does well” (Taibbi, 2017).
I digress. I mention all of this as a reminder to myself and to anyone reading that we must be skeptical and keep questioning, no matter if there is a Democrat or Republican in charge. With power like that, it is the people’s duty to make sure the President is serving at the pleasure of the American public – it always has been.
However, as is usually the case, there is a silver lining. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will be attended the 2017 White Houses Correspondents’ Dinner, where they spoke and announced the awards in journalism (Abrams, 2017). This is unusual; usually a comedian hosts the event and usually the President attends, but President Trump opted out this year in light of his tense relationship with the press (Abrams, 2017). According to TIME Magazine, Woodward has stated that he and Bernstein will refrain from the joking, and instead focus on the First Amendment and “the importance of aggressive but fair reporting” (Abrams, 2017). One would hope that the two men who brought down one president will have advice for the next generation of journalists who have fumbled along the way since the inauguration of President Trump. It is no secret that the press and the American public underestimated President Trump, but where do we go from here? How do we redeem ourselves? How do we approach these news stories that have been seen as comical for so long?
Perhaps the words of Nixon, a president filled with regret, will enlighten them: “Always remember. Others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself” (NPR, 06:56 – 07:06).
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Feature image: The Sleuth Journal