Indeed, it could be said that today’s U.S.
political imbalance – tilting so much in favor of Republicans over
Democrats – derived from the simple fact that conservatives learned the
real lessons of Watergate while the liberals didn’t.
Most importantly, the bitter experience of
Watergate taught the conservatives the need to control the flow of
information at the national level.
Following President Richard Nixon’s resignation in
1974, former Treasury Secretary William Simon and other conservative
leaders began pulling together the resources for building the right-wing
media infrastructure that is now arguably the most intimidating force in
U.S. politics. A key goal was to make sure they could protect future
Republican presidents from “another Watergate.” [For details, see Robert
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Meanwhile, liberals largely treated the Watergate
scandal as manna from heaven and assumed that similar gifts would be
delivered by the mainstream news media whenever future Republican
governments stepped out of line. The Left saw little need for media
investment and instead stressed local grassroots organizing around
This progressive priority – summed up in the
slogan, “think globally, act locally” – became almost dogma on the Left,
even as conservatives expanded their political base across the country
by exploiting their widening advantage in media, from AM talk radio and
cable TV news to magazines, newspapers and the Internet.
The Left’s faith in grassroots politics wasn’t
shaken even by a long string of political disasters, from the 12 years
of restored Republican rule under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to
the impeachment of Bill Clinton to George W. Bush’s success in snatching
Election 2000 away from Al Gore and then leading the nation to war with
For years, the line from the Left was that the
Right could best be countered by organizers going door to door. When
challenged about the Left’s starvation of progressive media outlets, one
liberal foundation executive explained, “we don’t do media.”
Only gradually has the Left’s line begun to change
in the face of the extraordinary clout of today’s conservative media and
the collapse of any countervailing independence within the mainstream
media, best demonstrated during the run-up to war in Iraq.
When asked about media these days, well-placed
liberals will say, “now we get it.” But there has yet to be much
follow-through, as the need to establish independent media outlets
remains mostly an afterthought among progressive funders.
The Left’s continuing priorities were on display at
the June 1 awards dinner for the “Take Back America” conference in
Washington. The most sure-fire applause line came when a speaker praised
someone’s accomplishments in “grassroots organizing.”
At the dinner, I talked with one progressive
organizer about the Left’s media deficit. She responded,
matter-of-factly, “information is not a progressive issue.”
But the renewed interest in Watergate – following
the disclosure that former FBI official Mark Felt was the legendary
“Deep Throat” who guided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl
Bernstein – offers another chance to absorb the scandal’s lessons.
First, it should be recognized how fragile the
process was that exposed Nixon’s illegal political spying operation,
which planted bugs in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at
the Watergate building in Washington. Even without a powerful
conservative media apparatus at his disposal, Nixon almost succeeded in
hiding the truth.
By mounting an aggressive cover-up inside the
government, Nixon slipped past any accountability from the voters in
1972, winning a landslide reelection over Democrat George McGovern.
Meanwhile, the Woodward-Bernstein investigation was
running into brick walls while many Washington political pundits shared
the White House view that Watergate was just “a third-rate burglary”
committed by rogue Republican operatives. At those critical junctures,
Woodward often got guidance from “Deep Throat.”
In a new article, Woodward described his
relationship with Felt as resulting from a series of fortuitous events,
beginning when Woodward was a Navy courier who would sometimes carry
documents to the White House. There, he found himself waiting with Felt,
the FBI’s No. 2 man who eventually became a kind of mentor to Woodward.
After his Navy service, Woodward landed a job on
the metro staff of the Washington Post. Then, when five burglars were
caught inside the DNC’s Watergate office on the morning of June 17,
1972, Woodward was assigned to the strange case.
Woodward turned to his friend, Felt, who – as luck
would have it – was inclined to help, partly out of concern over Nixon’s
appointment of crony L. Patrick Gray to replace the late FBI director J.
Edgar Hoover. Upset at getting passed over for the top job and worried
about a politicized FBI, Felt began giving guidance to Woodward,
steering him toward lines of investigation. [Washington Post, June 2,
After the 1972 election, with the Watergate
cover-up beginning to fray, Nixon also was taking action. He recruited a
well-connected former Texas congressman, George H.W. Bush, to lead the
Republican National Committee and to keep the scandal under wraps.
The Republicans got a break, too, when a Bush
friend from Texas, Robert Strauss, took over as chairman of the
Democratic National Committee in early 1973. Strauss also was a protégé
of Nixon’s Treasury Secretary John Connolly, who had defected from the
As Nixon started his second term, Strauss favored
dropping the Watergate case and even tried to settle a wiretap lawsuit
that the Democrats had filed after the break-in. To get rid of the
lawsuit, which had been an early avenue for the Watergate investigation,
Strauss put pressure on R. Spencer Oliver, a Democratic staffer who was
key to the suit because the only bug that worked had been placed on his
Oliver’s resistance to Strauss’s strategy kept the
Democratic lawsuit alive, though Oliver suffered retaliation from the
DNC chairman. [For details on this remarkable story, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
With Strauss’s plan thwarted and with the Post
keeping the spotlight on the Watergate mystery, the scandal
investigation expanded, pulling in the Democratic-controlled Congress,
the federal courts, independent counsels and eventually whistleblowers
like former White House counsel John Dean.
Though, in retrospect, the outcome may seem to have
been inevitable – Nixon after all was guilty – the reality is that
events could have played out in many different ways. But the fact that
journalists, such as Woodward and Bernstein, were present, pulling at
the edges of the cover-up, was important in its eventual unraveling.
So, one lesson of Watergate is that aggressive
journalists can make a difference often in ways that can’t be predicted
beforehand. If no one’s there to ask questions and challenge deceptive
answers, cover-ups are far more likely to succeed.
Conversely, the lesson learned by the Republicans
was the need to intimidate freewheeling journalists as much as possible
and to make sure editors grant them little leeway in pursuing a
politically sensitive story that could harm the conservative cause.
When I interviewed Spencer Oliver in 1992, he told
me, “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do
it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they
have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way
that will avoid another major scandal.”
The conservative success at building a media
infrastructure that could protect Republican leaders was one of the
great political accomplishments of recent years, much as the
progressives’ failure to counter it may be viewed as one of the great
One consequence was that when Republican officials
– including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – ran afoul of the
Iran-Contra Affair, the newly minted right-wing machine showed it could
prevent “another Watergate.”
At the Associated Press in the mid-1980s, I was one
of the reporters involved in unearthing that scandal. Though I never
expected the work to be easy, I was stunned by how strong the
conservative rearguard defenses were and how intimidated many of my
mainstream colleagues became.
Rather than pursuing the Iran-Contra Affair with
Watergate-like zeal, the major news organizations acted more like they
wanted the story to go away. In 1987, after I left AP for a job at
Newsweek, I found some senior editors at the Washington Post-owned
magazine expressing the view, apparently held by Post publisher
Katharine Graham, that “we don’t want another Watergate.”
The hip media posture on Iran-Contra quickly became
that it was “too complicated, too boring.” The disdain for the scandal
let congressional Republicans, including then-Rep. Dick Cheney,
R-Wyoming, work behind the scenes to frustrate Democratic investigators
while former White House aide Oliver North grandstanded in public.
A Press Failure
Later in 1987, I received a call from one Senate
investigator who asked me to meet him at a downtown Washington hotel.
When I got there, I found the investigator visibly upset. He wanted to
know why the news organizations weren’t covering the inside story of the
congressional Iran-Contra investigation.
“In Watergate,” he told me, “much of the story was
how the investigations were being stonewalled. Why doesn’t anyone care
about that now?”
I told the investigator that the answer was that
senior editors either weren’t interested or were openly hostile to the
Iran-Contra issue. With his head down, the frustrated Senate
investigator left the hotel.
The congressional investigation ended with the
acceptance of a politically convenient cover story that placed most of
the blame on North and a few other “men of zeal.” But independent
prosecutor Lawrence Walsh continued to press the criminal investigation.
As Walsh advanced, the Reagan-Bush administrations
put obstacles in his path. For instance, by refusing to declassify many
of the scandal’s documents, the White House forced Walsh to throw out
many of the most serious charges against North and his cohorts. Also,
senior officials – from Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger to President Reagan and Vice President Bush
– consistently dissembled in the face of investigative questions.
Still, Walsh managed to win convictions of North
and others, although on largely technical charges of deceiving Congress
or obstructing justice. Then, even many of these narrow convictions were
overturned by Republican judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals. President
George H.W. Bush issued pardons in a half dozen other Iran-Contra cases.
Rather than protesting the thwarting of justice,
many mainstream journalists expressed sympathy for the cover-up and
criticized Walsh’s supposed obstinacy.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many
capital insiders when he expressed relief that Bush’s pardon had spared
the well-liked “Cap” Weinberger from prosecution. Cohen noted that he
had seen Weinberger pushing his own shopping cart at the Georgetown
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a
basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of
official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote in praise of the pardon. “Cap,
my Safeway buddy, walks, and that's all right with me.” [Washington
Post, Dec. 30, 1992.]
Explaining the media’s disdain for Walsh,
Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams observed that “in the
utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like Walsh’s
is distinctly suspect. It began to seem … rigid of him to care so much.
So un-Washington. Hence the gathering critique of his efforts as
vindictive, extreme. Ideological. … But the truth is that when Walsh
finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.” [Washington Post,
April 11, 1993]
For his part, Walsh, a lifelong Republican who
believed strongly in the rule of law, compared his experience to Ernest
Hemingway’s maritime classic, The Old Man and the Sea, in which
an aging fisherman hooks a giant marlin and, after a long battle,
secures the fish to the side of his boat. On the way back to port, the
marlin is attacked by sharks that devour its flesh and deny the
fisherman his prize.
“As the independent counsel, I sometimes felt like
the old man,” Walsh wrote in his memoir Firewall, “more often, I
felt like the marlin.”
In my 1997
review of Walsh’s book, I wrote:
crucial ways, Watergate, the signature scandal of the 1970s, and
Iran-Contra, the signature scandal of the 1980s, were opposites.
Watergate showed how the constitutional institutions of American
democracy – the Congress, the courts and the press – could check a gross
abuse of power by the Executive. A short dozen years later, the
Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated how those same institutions had ceased
to protect the nation from serious White House wrongdoing.” [See
Inside the Iran-Contra Cover-up.”]
On the Offensive
When the Reagan-Bush years ended, the conservatives
discovered additional uses for their multi-billion-dollar media machine
beyond “preventing another Watergate.”
After Bill Clinton managed to win the White House
in Election 1992, the Right showed that the machine – though built for
defense – could play offense equally well. The machine could manufacture
“scandals” about Clinton as easily as it could disassemble threats to
Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
In many ways, the hyped “Whitewater scandal” about
Clinton’s Arkansas real-estate deal was Republican payback for Nixon’s
Watergate resignation. Even the disgraced Nixon, living in retirement,
saw Whitewater as his opportunity for revenge.
On April 13, 1994, four days before the stroke that
would lead to his death, Nixon spoke to biographer Monica Crowley about
Whitewater. “Clinton should pay the price,” Nixon said. “Our people
shouldn’t let this issue go down. They mustn’t let it sink.” [See Monica
Crowley’s Nixon Off the Record or Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Clinton Scandals: Nixon Returns.”]
During the Clinton years, the mainstream press also
got a chance to show that it could be tougher on a Democrat than any
Republican and thus buy some reprieve from the endless conservative
indictment of a “liberal media.”
As the attacks mounted, Clinton and other Democrats
expressed puzzlement about why the “supposedly liberal media” was so
hostile. But the mainstream media’s attacks on the Clinton
administration were logical if one had observed Washington’s political
evolution since Watergate.
In the mid-1970s, when the Left chose to turn
toward “grassroots organizing” and away from doing media,
Washington journalists as well as government investigators like Walsh
became easy targets for the Right and its well-funded anti-press attack
As more and more journalists lost their careers
from these conservative assaults, the press colleagues left behind
either already sympathized with conservative policies or realized that
self-protection required some accommodation with the Right. Certainly,
the last thing a journalist wanted was to offend the Right, get labeled
a “liberal” and then face relentless scrutiny by conservative press
The last three decades of U.S. political history
followed from the fateful choices made in the wake of Watergate: a
media-disengaged Left, a media-rearmed Right and a mainstream media that
shelved journalistic principles in favor of a more immediate principle,
[For more on the media crisis, see
Left’s Media Miscalculation” or “Mystery
of the Democrats’ New Spine.”]