Watergate's Legacy

Nearly 25 years later, the nation is still grappling with the fallout from a 'third-rate burglary attempt'

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

It was a so-called "third-rate burglary attempt," scarcely noticed at the time, and it launched an unprecedented political crisis, a new era in journalism, and a slew of memorable catch-phrases and characters.

Twenty-five years ago next month, Washington, DC's Watergate Hotel was the site of an attempted break-in at the Democratic National Campaign headquarters, an event that eventually doomed the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, and contributed a synonym for various illegal campaign finance practices, covert operations and other questionable practices linked to his administration.

Watergate's legacy, say Boston College faculty, provokes both optimism and pessimism. If Watergate demonstrated that the American system of government can withstand abuses of power at its highest levels, they say, the lesson did not completely take hold - nor have Watergate-era reforms. If Watergate showed how a free, dedicated press could act as a public watchdog, it also provided a basis for the overly aggressive, personality-driven style of journalism in abundance today.

Perhaps, the faculty say, Watergate's ultimate contribution to American history and culture is its literary qualities, as Greek tragedy, cautionary tale, even psychodrama.

"There are so many things about Watergate that prompt the question 'why?'," said Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science). "Why Nixon's reluctance to lay the blame on his aides? Why didn't he just destroy the Oval Office tapes? Why did he embark on such a self-destructive course?
Lect. Michael Keith (Communication), Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science) and Assoc. Prof. Marilynn Johnson (History), from left. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"Boiling it all down, Watergate had to do with the public's antipathy toward the federal government as a plaything in the president's hands," he said. "Nixon showed a profound disregard for the formalities of government. This secret effort, and the use of government agencies, was simply wrong. Some of these trends pre-date Nixon's administration, however, and the idea of executive tyranny continues to concern people."

The positive interpretation of Watergate, Lect. Michael Keith (Communication) explained, "is that out of all these terrible times came an affirmation that truth will win out; that in a country of good and honest people, such evil and mis-doing could not be concealed."

But not all took comfort from this illustration of the durability of the American system of government, said Assoc. Prof. Marilynn Johnson (History).

"I think there was a real sense of political disillusionment after Watergate, when people realized how dirty politics could be," she explained. "They didn't necessarily become apolitical. They channeled more of their energies into different arenas, into cultural politics and grassroots efforts - the environment, consumer issues and women's rights, to name a few."

The Watergate era did produce several noteworthy reforms dealing with abuse-of-power issues, Johnson notes, such as the War Powers Act, which mandates congressional approval for initiating military actions; the Fair Campaign Practices Act, which demands stricter accountability regarding campaign contributions; and the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens access to some government information.

Still, as Law School Associate Dean George Brown notes, such measures did not necessarily address the full extent of the problems Watergate reflected. "The special prosecutor is a Watergate invention," said Brown, chairman of the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission. "But the issue of how exactly you prosecute politicians is still with us. Similarly, campaign finance - which was the basis of so many Watergate-related activities - also is very much an unresolved issue, and it's highly doubtful we will see any reform legislation passed this year."

In the evolution of journalism, however, Keith sees Watergate as a critical milestone, especially for broadcast media. For the first time, he says, Americans could "enter into the chambers of government" thanks to enterprising reporters and the unprecedented 300-plus hours television networks devoted to covering Watergate hearings and events. Viewers became acquainted with diverse personalities such as John Dean, Charles Colson, H.R. Haldeman, Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, and felon and future talk show host G. Gordon Liddy.

Watergate gave a boost to journalism and prompted a rush into mass communication programs at colleges and universities, Keith said. But the media's ascension also "fueled some powerful ambitions" among many of its professionals, he said, who "wound up being quoted in the news more often than those they quoted."

Another unfortunate legacy of Watergate, Landy says, is the decreasing civility in political discourse.

"The normal, decent conflict between the president and Congress has been soiled, as it has almost everywhere else in the political realm," he said. "The first tactic in a political battle now is what dirt can you get on this guy, what '-gate' you can attach to him."

Ironically, Landy notes, one person who had a perfect opportunity to observe the consequences of political secrecy and scandal was a young lawyer serving with the US House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Inquiry staff named Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Somehow," Landy said, "the message didn't come through."

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