Who remembers Watergate?

If the scandals — real or imagined — this week have done nothing else, they’ve properly set up the summer of 2013 as a time to observe the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings.

The first hearings of the scandal began 40 years ago today:

“This is far worse than Watergate,” Rep. Michele Bachmann declared this week, referring to the IRS focus on Tea Party groups. We can’t possibly know that because we don’t know enough about the IRS story yet.

But her hyperbole mirrors that of Democrats around this time 41 years ago. They were trying to get the country to pay attention to a political break-in and the steady drip of information that increasingly reflected a presidential cover-up, and the country wasn’t at all interested because it was easy — far too easy — to dismiss the assertions as the work of partisan politicians and a liberal media.

“Back then, investigations followed facts. Today partisanship leads to distortion of facts to suit theory,” a follower on Twitter commented this week when I noted the seizure of reporter phone records had the faint aroma of the Nixon administration.

He had part of it right — the current part, but the assertion that Watergate lacked the politics of today’s scandals reinforces that younger people really don’t know much about either Watergate or the Nixon administration. And so when Rep. Bachmann declares the current situation worse than Watergate, it probably doesn’t matter much to many Americans except those who remember Watergate and understand that the current scandal in its current form is nowhere close.

All of which is a lengthy lead-in to pointing out that PBS NewsHour is in the process of putting together a terrific site about the anniversary of the Watergate hearings, starting with a series of poignant remembrances from viewers about how the nation was captivated by the hearings.

Consider this one, for example:


The Watergate hearings made a lasting impression on me. I clearly remember and think of it often to this day, how I sat indoors most of the summer and listened to these hearing unfold. I was fascinated. I was 13 years old and glued to the television. I think now what a weird kid I must have been. But it had a lasting impression on me. I understood only part of it I am sure. The phrase ‘to the best of my recollection’ vibrates in my head still when I think of the hearings. John Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, John Dean’s wife with the tightly coiffed blonde hair…these are all images that remain with me. I don’t really recall what my impression was in terms of government, morality and the media. I do think though that these televised hearings enabled the viewer to watch government unfold as it were and it seemed and seems to me to be a valuable public service – one of the few good reasons for television to exist. Now, I want the summer of ’73 back – to have the fun I was supposed to be having!

And this one…


So many moments in our collective history have been described as “when we lost our innocence,” but in the case of Watergate, that really was the case. How could anyone emerge from it unchanged? For me, I learned to be wary, if not suspicious of government. If something they do doesn’t seem right, it’s our duty to speak up. I also learned that the media, when it really wants to, and when it’s allowed to, can change history. What would have happened to us as a nation had certain media outlets, particularly The Washington Post and CBS, not focused on this story and seen it to its conclusion? Few people believed them at first. Few people thought a president and his administration could be so venal. It was a major revelation to find out that was the case, and I’m so glad some determined media outlets saw it through when the pressure to back off was immense.

It obviously made us more cynical, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of us were naïve before, and this is just the opposite extreme. But sometimes the most patriotic thing an American can do is to keep asking questions. It happened once. It can happen again, if we’re foolish enough to permit it.

Although the hearings started 40 years ago today in the Senate, it would be another year before it completed its work, and then the House Judiciary Committee did something even more remarkable in congressional history — its job. Six of 17 Republicans on the committee sided with Democrats in impeaching a Republican president.

An engaged public? A savvy media? A Congress rising to the occasion? Setting aside the facts of Watergate, these were some of the most remarkable aspects of the scandal, which the present scandals are not likely to duplicate to any degree.

  • KTN

    “We can’t possibly know that because we don’t know enough about the IRS story yet”.

    We know plenty, and it ain’t Watergate. This bubbled up from the bottom, not a top down edict. The IRS was doing their due diligence by looking more closely at Tea Party, anti-tax groups, and would be remiss if they glossed over those groups. The 50(c)4 is quite different than it’s cousin the 501(c)3, and requires those asking for this status to ensure they are not using their money for candidates, or political action. In usual fashion, the Tea Party cried foul, but were skirting the law. They deserve the scrutiny, and it is fun to watch the machinations and teeth gnashing.

    It’s not really even a scandal, its just a bunch of whinny anti-tax people who got caught using their status to skirt the law – as evinced by Karl Rove’s group, which had non-profit status, and yet dumped 70 million into the last election. Maybe he should be investigated for violating the rules of non-profits.

  • jon

    I don’t remember watergate…

    I don’t know as much about it as I probably should.

    But, I do know that right now the president is under investigation for the handling of Benghazi, it seems to be a very partisan effort. And given the attacks on american embassies and consulates that happened during the other presidencies that I can remember, this seems like a knee jerk reaction… much like shootings where there are fewer of them (maybe not mass shootings, no good data there) so when one happens it’s a big deal.

    Everything I’ve heard about the IRS is that they were investigating a political group that was opposed to taxes… seems reasonable. Of course if it came down from the president that they should be investigated more heavily as that is a story… Not just because of the impeachment potential, but also because the tea party is one of the presidents greatest political allies… they helped divide the republican party, they make boners job that much harder to satisfy anyone with in his own party, and they gave the democrats something to rally against…

    I find it frustrating the number of things we are crying foul for and pointing the finger at the president… Worse things have happened, the same people did nothing at the time… but now the world is falling apart because of it (well at least D.C. The rest of us really don’t seem to care)…

  • Alan

    KTN – You’d possibly be correct if they were also targeting liberal groups engaging in similar actions (and there are plenty of them). The fact that the IRS was specifically scrutinizing people with a specific viewpoint should scare the hell out of people from every political leaning unless your political leaning is an oppressive, tyrannical government. This may just be one rogue person or office, but it is essential we know and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Just remember, it might be a group you support next time.

  • Bob Collins

    I watched a little bit of the hearing today on this subject in Washington and at one point, a representative — it doesn’t matter which party — read a list of questions that the IRS was asking, including “what is your relationship with (name of person).”

    Liberal, conservative, whatever…. what would be the business of asking what one’s relationship is with a person?

  • tboom

    Q: What does the IRS have?

    A: Taxing authority.

    Q: What does the TEA party challenge?

    A: Taxing authority.

    From a common sense perspective, it seems more likely this is the bureaucracy acting in its own interest. If that is the case, it would be in the Dems. best interest to get facts out and put this thing to bed as soon as possible. The lesson of Watergate is that eventually we will know what happened.

  • John O.

    I’m sorry Ms. Bachmann, but this is nowhere near the level of the Watergate scandal. Bachmann is old enough to remember Watergate, but many of her followers probably know little about Watergate, or weren’t even alive at that time.

    The fact that Nixon had installed an audio recording system in the Oval Office itself was his ultimate undoing. He indicted himself with his own words.

    Also keep in mind that at that time there was no internet, no cable television, no fax machines, no cell phones, a monopoly on long-distance telephone service, and basically four television/radio networks: CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS. You had the wire services (AP and UPI being the largest), and the Washington bureaus of the larger dailies in the U.S. The main source of news came in the daily newspapers and the evening news on the networks. Radio provided summaries at the top of every hour, plus bulletins.

    The unprecedented live television coverage made the likes of Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, Daniel Inouye and a young Fred Thompson household names. It changed history, the media and the politicians. If Obama is guilty of anything, it’s surrounding himself with folks in key positions in the White House who don’t seem to have much of a handle on how to deal with issues as they arise.

  • BJ

    //Q: What does the TEA party challenge?

    //A: Taxing authority.

    I guess the Democratic talking point has been fleshed out on this. Except the TEA Party is not focused on Taxing authority, so the argument falls flat.