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I Love Watergate. I Love it Still. Updated meditations on the anniversary of the break in.

June 17, 2014


Once upon a time, facts mattered.  Once upon a time when I was a very little boy, Truth confronted Power and Power lost.  It was very beautiful.

The success of Trump has of course shown how the idea of politicians being held held to account by some agreed standard of truth has long gone.  And Britain, which has proven itself to be a much coarser and stupider country than the USA, has likewise given up on facts altogether.  Watergate, by comparison, represents an almost utopian moment in political history, one we should cherish and tell our grandchildren about while apologising for having squandered its legacy.

I love Watergate.  I love every aspect of the story and the delicious way it unfolded, and continues to unfold in the marvellous retellings.  Hands up who’s seen this movie for example – the subtly titled Dick – which turns out to be Watergate retold as a high school comedy?   One thing I like about it is the fact that Dan Hedaya and Saul Rubinek, who had only been given small parts in Oliver Stone’s epic Nixon a few years earlier are subsequently promoted in Dick to the roles of Nixon and Kissinger respectively.

It’s the forty-sixth anniversary of the Watergate break in today (strictly speaking – the anniversary of the second unsuccessful break in where they got caught). In the space of two years, despite the best efforts of a criminal president, a republican constitution provided for the legal means whereby a head of state could be peacefully removed from office. When Nixon resigned to avoid (let’s face it certain) impeachment it was a powerful and inspiring example of the idea that nobody should be above the law.  No nation on earth actually enjoys “rule of law” of course – “rule of law” is a wonderful aspiration rather than a practical reality, but Watergate did much to validate  this aspiration and helped to bequeath anew it to subsequent generations.

Forty six years on, in the USA, Trump tries to discredit legal mechanisms as politically motivated.  In Poland, the very existence of an independent judiciary is being undermined.  In the UK, judges are denounced as “Enemies of the  People”.  At stake is the idea of Law being something that governs everyone and to which everyone has recourse instead of being the mere instrument of someone or something that proclaims itself “the Will of the People”.

Because of course, such mechanisms as did for Nixon do not always work  – and not every President is held accountable for their crimes. But the fact that it doesn’t work always shouldn’t distract us from noting when it has worked and therefore can and should work in future.  And of course, there’s the crucial element of contingency.  If Liddy and Hunt hadn’t panicked and forgotten everything they should have remembered about how long it takes to get a search warrant when they fled their hotel, packing their bags less carefully if I was checking out of an academic conference…  If Alexander Butterfield hadn’t let slip the existence of the taping system… etc. etc. etc.

More seriously, of course there the fact that few are so naive as to believe that the Watergate break in (and/or covering it up) was the worst crime ever perpetuated by a president.  Presidents have gotten away with far more and far worse than Nixon and served out their full terms and collected their pensions in due course.

But the fact that the system doesn’t always work, should not stop people celebrating the occasions when it does.  In fact, celebrations should be louder and more frequent in the hope that the system may work more often in future.  Watergate represents an important trophy in the otherwise rather bare and musty trophy cabinet known as “Rule of Law”.  Let no other nation make sneering reference to Watergate.  In particular, nations without written constitutions and with no proper legal means of bringing their own heads of state to account have no right to make sneering reference to Watergate.  Watergate showed the USA at its best.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Lest we forget

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