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The Real Lessons of Watergate

By Robert Parry
June 3, 2005

As the Washington Post again basks in the faded glory of its Watergate coverage, many of the scandal’s crucial lessons remain obscure even to people close to the iconic events of 33 years ago. Ironically, that’s especially true for those on the winning side.

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 Parry’s 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 social issues.

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.

Unshaken Faith

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 Iraq.

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.”

‘Deep Throat’

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, 2005]

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.

Democratic Intrigue

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 Democratic Party.

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 phone.

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.

Republican Lessons

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 blunders.

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.

‘Un-Washington’

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 Safeway.

“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]

Old Man

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:

“In 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 Consortiumnews.com’s “Firewall: 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 groups.

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 critics.

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, career survival.

[For more on the media crisis, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation” or “Mystery of the Democrats’ New Spine.”]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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