I was 12 years old during Sam Ervin’s Watergate hearings, and watched them over the course of a long, hot summer, a time when I seemed to register the startling fact that my parents weren’t infallible and grownups did not necessarily know more about the world than I did. Watergate was empowering in a sense: It told you that the authority figures were flawed, perhaps deeply so, that you should not blindly trust the powerful. Bad men do bad things, and lie about them, and it is our challenge to scrape away that deceit and find the truth beneath.
There is much talk this week of the “scandals” breaking in Washington, and we are offered three, a tidy triumvirate. The IRS. Benghazi. The government snooping on the Associated Press. Many of us who are old hands, who are tenured scandal-watchers, are for the moment somewhat unimpressed by the scale and potential reach of these scandals.
At the moment, this isn’t Watergate, or Iran-Contra, or Lewinsky. In my day a scandal would sear your eyeballs.
What makes a scandal not only momentarily compelling but historically significant is when it reaches the condition of automatic self-regeneration. It has to spark new elements continuously. It must shock and appall and transfix on a regular basis, tumbling in time with the news cycle. Most of all, it has to have a cast of interesting characters, ideally at least one with a crewcut.
So far the IRS scandal seems to involve civil servants. A person I never heard of got sacked (and he was “interim”). At the core of the Benghazi story is a tragedy, but so much of the furor is about spin. There’s talk of duplicitous tampering with “talking points.” Do you think in the Nixon White House that G. Gordon Liddy was worried about talking points? Do you think E. Howard Hunt ever had “spin” on his mind?
There was a time when most of us didn’t know who Liddy or Hunt were, or Haldeman, or Ehrlichman, or Mitchell, or any of the president’s men. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had pursued the story at The Washington Post when few others in town wanted to touch it, but by the summer of 1973 it was all anyone could talk about. The president’s men came to life via the magic of television, the hearings carried live through the summer, pre-empting the soaps. Hovering over the entire proceeding was the hypothesis that Nixon, and his men, were guilty of criminal conspiracies, with the Watergate break-in itself just one piece of a larger puzzle that involved an enemies list and dirty campaign tricks and slush funds and “black bag jobs” and general thuggishness.
Incredibly, the scandal had been secretly taped.
And one of the tapes had a gap! An 18 and a half minute gap! Which Nixon blamed on Rose Mary Woods, his secretary. Riiiiiiiiight.
The astonishing hypothesis of the Watergate scandal was that the Nixon White House had corruption in its DNA — that the abuse of power was a routine matter for the administration, and that the president’s natural paranoia, his insecurity, his trickiness, had generated a malevolence and criminality that had spread to every root and twig of the organism.
The president had his defenders, of course, including one of my senators from Florida, Ed Gurney, who served on the Ervin committee. The ranking Republican, Howard Baker, seemed committed to the truth no matter where it led him. Sam Ervin, the chairman, was a lovable, simple country lawyer, as he put it. The proceedings were, let it be noted, glacial. I have no idea if today such hearings would have the same effect. In the summer of 1973 we had to listen to a lot of testimony to get any sense of what really had happened. Most of the president’s men denied everything. That’s where John Dean came in: the canary. He told the country that there was, indeed, a cancer on the presidency.
This was high drama, and most of all, it was a daily event. Watergate became its own little industry. The wheels of impeachment began to turn. I don’t need to recount for this audience how the whole thing played out (Nixon at the last minute proving it was a set-up, and ending his second term with sky-high approval ratings, as noted by the tour guides at the huge memorial to him on the Mall).
We will see how these new scandals proceed, keeping in mind that the “Second Term Scandal” template is easily deployed by partisans and the news media. But for a scandal to avoid collapse into kerfuffledom, it has to keep delivering revelations day after day, for weeks and months. Also, some secret tapes would be nice.