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Watergate 50 years on: Political thinkers give their take on the scandal that shaped America

Watergate 50 years on: Political thinkers give their take on the scandal that shaped America


7 min read

You know the name, but do you know the root and repercussions of Watergate? Ahead of an event to mark the 50th anniversary, a panel of eminent political thinkers give their take on the scandal that shook the White House and shaped America.

Remembering Watergate

Mark White is director of London POTUS Group and professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London

The 50th anniversary of Watergate is an apt moment to reflect on the origins and consequences of the greatest political scandal in modern American history, as well as on the presidency of Richard Nixon.

There are different ways to characterise Watergate. It can be viewed as the inevitable culmination of the emergence of the “imperial presidency” – an institution that had become increasingly and dangerously powerful in preceding decades.

Or, Watergate can be seen more as the result of Nixon’s own insecure, brooding character (despite his considerable intelligence and ability) and ferociously combative political style.

Whatever the fundamental causes of Watergate, its impact was profound, and it shaped the political landscape in the years that followed.

As for the man himself, as controversial and polarising as he was, he became the dominant politician in the quarter-century of American history from 1950 to 1975. It is remarkable that he was on the ticket of every single presidential election in that period, apart from 1964, as either the Republican presidential or vice-presidential candidate. His presidency was striking for not only Watergate but many bold initiatives, not least opening up relations with communist China.

Nixon: More than a scandal

Iwan Morgan is emeritus professor at UCL and presidential scholar.

Watergate is the indelible stain on Richard Nixon’s reputation, but his presidency was significant for more than the scandal that destroyed it. He promoted the most important changes in American foreign policy since the onset of the cold war. Most significantly, his opening to the People’s Republic of China forged a new entente with the hitherto hostile Beijing regime to counter Soviet expansionism.

He additionally established a new détente with the Soviet Union to manage superpower competition, most notably through the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, the first arms-control treaty of the nuclear era.

Nixon also agreed the settlement that ended the United States’ participation in the Vietnam war in 1973, but this was hardly the “peace with honour” he had promised Americans and could not prevent Communist victory two years later.

In domestic terms, Nixon can be seen either as the last of the moderate Republican presidents or the first in a new cycle of conservative ones. His record included desegregating more Southern public schools than any president in history, presiding over a regulatory revolution (notably the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency) and a major welfare reform that failed to gain Senate enactment.

Meanwhile, he built foundations for a new Republican ascendancy through his cultural conservatism that appealed to habitual Democratic voters in the blue-collar suburbs and the white South. If Nixon’s abuses of presidential power rightly weigh heavier in the scales of history, his accomplishments also mark him as one of the most significant modern presidents.

Nixon V Kennedy

Chris Evans is Labour MP for Islwyn.

In a sense, the roots of Watergate go back to a presidential campaign a dozen years earlier. On 26 September 1960, the two candidates for the most powerful office in the world entered a television studio in Chicago. It was the first-ever televised presidential debate. It lasted just an hour but would come to frame the image of both men in the public consciousness.

The Democrat, John F Kennedy, is forever seen as tall, tanned and relaxed, while the Republican Richard Nixon appeared gaunt, tortured and shifty. For both Kennedy and Nixon, their rivalry not only defined them but shaped American society in the mid- to late 20th century. Having both entered Congress in 1946 as naval veterans of a similar age, it seemed almost inevitable their rivalry would one day come to a head, which it did in 1960.

After losing by less than one per cent of the vote, and rumours of electoral fraud in several states, Nixon had grounds to feel hard done by. Following his assassination in 1963, Kennedy became a “Camelot” legend while Nixon was seen as a bitter loser after another defeat for California governor in 1962.

Nixon’s comeback by winning the presidency in 1968, therefore, was nothing short of spectacular, but he was always in the shadow of Kennedy. Despite securing a second term by a landslide in 1972, Nixon could never really shake off the scars of the 1960 election. He had tasted defeat and resolved it would never happen again; and in the end it destroyed him.

Shades of the Clinton impeachment

Bridget Kendall is former BBC Washington correspondent and Master, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

In April 1994, then-president Bill Clinton spoke at Richard Nixon’s funeral. He conceded Nixon may have made mistakes but praised the former president’s intelligence, energy, and devotion to duty. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” said Bill Clinton.

It was a speech redolent with irony: a president who had once protested against Nixon’s Vietnam policies, and whose wife, Hillary Clinton, had cut her political teeth on the impeachment case against Nixon during the Watergate scandal, now asking Americans not to judge him too harshly. Prefacing his own future, Clinton was already appealing for an impeachment scandal not to overshadow a presidency.

Are there parallels between the two impeachment stories? Both centred on the cover-ups, rather than the initial misdemeanours. In both cases, star investigative reporters helped expose key evidence. In each case, secret recordings acted as bombshells – the Nixon White House tapes and those kept by Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky’s perfidious confidante. And to divert attention, both presidents claimed political opponents were exploiting the situation.

But Nixon’s alleged crime – abuse of presidential power – was far more serious. He may have dodged impeachment by resigning, but he could not escape the disgrace of it. Clinton was impeached – for perjury and obstruction of justice over an extra marital affair. Opinion was split on whether this reached the constitutional bar of a “high crime and misdemeanour”. So Clinton survived, serving out his time as president with an astonishing 65 per cent approval rating.

The Political Consequences

Tim Stanley is columnist and leader writer for The Telegraph and historian.

You might imagine that liberals would have been the big winners from Watergate. But the 1974 anti-Republican congressional landslide returned a large number of Democrats who were critical of big government in all its forms, including welfare. Anti-elite fever led to the nomination of Jimmy Carter in 1976, a born-again Christian and political moderate. Carter in turn found that Watergate, by empowering Congress and the media, had made it far harder to run the country. Washington looked impotent and out of touch.

Meanwhile, Watergate contributed to the radicalisation of the Republican Party. Anti-establishment conservatives were in the ascendancy, helping to nominate Ronald Reagan in 1980, and though they acknowledged Richard Nixon was guilty, they believed he was also the victim of media bias.

The American right toyed with alternative media, an experiment that culminated in the launch of Fox News in 1996. Its founder, Roger Ailes, had played a part in Nixon’s 1968 election victory and was linked to Donald Trump in 2016. Trump and Nixon occasionally wrote to each other, and Nixon’s wife even predicted the businessman would someday win office.

Nixon’s reputation slowly revived among grassroots conservatives – many of whom, convinced they were up against a vast liberal conspiracy, approved of his transformation of the White House into an aggressive bulwark against courts and Congress.

And Trump, who was impeached not just once but twice, was compared far more to Nixon than to Reagan. His own culture war, hot on race and crime, was straight out of the “Tricky Dick” playbook.

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