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Worse than Watergate? A History Lesson.

- October 12, 2012

The fatal attack on the American consulate in Libya last month has suddenly made the work of conducting congressional oversight more appealing (at least to the GOP), but also led to a desire (ditto) to find out what the president knew about the Benghazi situation and when he knew it. Presumably this will only increase in light of Vice President Biden’s claim in the debate last night that “we weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again.”  The truth of that statement could depend on what the meaning of “we,” is — any such requests may have stalled at the deputy assistant secretary level within State, five layers down at Foggy Bottom and even farther from the Oval Office. But presidents have generally (if, to them, frustratingly) found it hard to distance themselves from decisions made nearly anywhere in their administration.

Oversight is a good thing, in my view. But whatever the quality of the policy decisions relating to Benghazi, one emerging talking point used by critics of the Obama administration should rankle any student of American history. Namely, the implication that the cover-up of which they accuse the administration is “worse than Watergate,” i.e., the scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.

This claim was made first (I think) by former Gov. Mike Huckabee in comments on Fox News late last month and reprised by Charles Krauthammer yesterday. After all, both men argued, “nobody died in Watergate.”

The Watergate link is implicit in the now-famous questions “what did the president know, and when did he know it?” (Originally asked by Republican senator Howard Baker.)   But let’s remember exactly what Watergate was, in fact – and thus what it was covering up.

We might start with the articles of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974, which charged the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power in manipulating executive agencies and violating citizens’ constitutional rights, and with refusing to cooperate with the impeachment process itself. An abridged list includes:

• burglary, in part via a subunit of the White House staff (the “Plumbers”)
• bribery and “hush money”
• wiretapping
• destruction of evidence
• illegal use of the CIA and FBI (sometimes, against each other)
• illegal use of the IRS
Actually, the last intersects with the first. Take an exchange between Nixon and his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, from forty years ago next week, October 15, 1972, a few months after the break-in at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, that gave the scandal its name. That break-in (there were others) targeted the Democratic National Committee offices. In the aftermath:

Nixon: One thing we did do, I think rather cleverly, was to review [DNC chairman Lawrence] O’Brien’s income tax returns. I think that’s why he’s so goddamn silent.

Haldeman: That’s right.

Nixon: And we followed up.


This comes from Stanley I. Kutler’s book of Nixon tape transcripts, Abuse of Power.

Kutler, however, broadens the context of the scandal to include what he terms, in his opus on the topic, The Wars of Watergate. He argues that the break-in occurred in — and would not have happened without — a much wider context that requires we consider “Watergate” generally to include Nixon’s broader battles with Congress: over the budget (impoundment, for instance, as discussed here), over secrecy and executive privilege, over the administration’s role in the overthrow of Salvatore Allende (and the CIA’s other “family jewels”), over efforts to infiltrate and discredit “subversive” groups opposed to the Vietnam War, and over Vietnam itself. On the last, in the present context, we would do well to remember the secret bombing (complete with faked mission reports) and invasion of Cambodia (which prompted the fatal protests at Kent State and Jackson State universities.)

In Watergate understood this way, people did die.

But we do not have to go so far to understand that the “worse than Watergate” notion is, well, a bunch of stuff.