One of the problems with treating an event like Watergate as history is that, for most of us, it isn’t. The “third-rate” burglary that became a constitutional crisis leading to the only resignation of a sitting President in our history may be two decades old, but it is still very much with us.
In last fall’s campaign, we saw just how much. Bill Clinton hammered away at George Bush for his handling of the economy, but Democrats in Congress, hedging their bets even as their man took a phenomenal lead in the polls, started preparing for the possibility of a second Bush presidency by looking for skeletons in Mr. Bush’s closet. Thus we had “Irangate” and “Iraqgate”—two somewhat related attempts to tie the President to arms-for-hostage swaps during the Reagan administration and to charge him with coddling Saddam Hussein in the time leading up to the Iraqi dictator’s invasion of Kuwait.
The politics of the matter should have been obvious; Congress was positioning Mr. Bush for a legislative mugging during a second term. Those shrill charges of a “cover-up” and hyperbolic claims of a “smoking gun” may have sounded like nonsense in the heat of a campaign, but they were really shots across Mr. Bush’s bow. The message was clear: win, and we will hound you unmercifully” using the full force of the law through four more years. (One is tempted, in fact, to ask whether this was the reason George Bush ran such a horrible campaign.)
Congress got even more than it bargained for when Richard Nixon resigned in that long-ago summer of 1974: it got statutory control of the presidency. Once it had it, along with the court-ordered power to perpetuate Democratic control of the legislature through the decennial process of shifting legislative districts (thus assuring incumbents of something akin to academic tenure), it had a lock-hard grip on our democracy. All this has largely been lost on the press (which still thinks it had a collective role in Watergate) and other institutions that monitor government, although the term-limit juggernaut seems to indicate that the people are at least aware of what is going on.
But more on this later. Getting back to Watergate as history, we see that, even though the event is still so much a part of our present, there is no mistaking that it is also a part of our past. Many of its key figures have faded into obscurity; some, including Sam Ervin, John Sirica, and John Mitchell, are dead. The one person who is still very much with us is Richard M. Nixon. One of the most complex men ever to hold the presidency, he seems even more complex in his long exile. Nixon has enjoyed the triumph so well expressed on automobile bumper-stickers—”hive long enough to be a nuisance to your kids”—but his “kids,” the American people he so wanted to govern paternalistically after they returned him to the White House with one of the largest landslides in American history, still know little about him.
Stephen E. Ambrose, wrapping up his multivolume biography of the 37th President with Ruin and Recovery, attempts to close this gap, but mostly fails. Professor Ambrose, who admits that he began his project with hostility toward Nixon, largely fails to present the warmer, wiser man that he has grown to admire: the elder statesman who can still get an audience with foreign leaders, offer his advice to Presidents (even if they don’t take it), and produce thoughtful books on the American condition.
The failure may not be entirely Professor Ambrose’s fault. That he presents precious little about Nixon’s recovery may be due in part to the former President’s lust for privacy and to his determination to write his own record rather than defer to others. Nevertheless, we must go through 400 pages before we start to read about Nixon in exile, and much of this information is familiar to those who have followed the President’s career.
The other problem, of course, is Watergate itself, by far the defining and all-consuming event of Richard Nixon’s long and largely productive life. But Watergate is even more familiar to readers than Nixon’s trips to China. By reason of the nature of the crisis, the tapes, and the number of books written by Watergate participants, Americans have a very thorough picture, although possibly not an understanding, of Nixon’s day-by-day free-fall into disgrace. It may still be necessary for the biographer to cover this ground, but the amount of attention Ambrose devotes to it seems excessive.
But enough of this. Stephen Ambrose has, perhaps unwittingly, identified a sea change in American politics, and that is the takeover of the presidency that Congress achieved with Watergate. It is preposterous to think anybody’s presidency can function in the straitjacket with which Congress has tried to contain it. Yet our obsession with the concept of America as a nation of laws has made us generally blind to this reality. While I have no sympathy for Richard Nixon and find it impossible to excuse the lawless behavior that produced such a simpleton break-in and imbecilic cover-up, it seems clear to me that we must eventually understand that Watergate did not make things better—that, indeed, an argument can be made that Watergate most certainly made them worse.
While it is Republican Presidents who have come under the scrutiny of investigations, committee hearings, and special prosecutions searching for impeachable offenses, it is perhaps the Democrats (more specifically, Jimmy- Carter; honeymooning Bill Clinton doesn’t yet count) since Watergate who have paid the greatest price for this congressional coup. As Professor Ambrose points out, while being run up a tree by Watergate Nixon offered welfare reform, campaign reform, universal health insurance, detente with the Soviets (thank Cod we didn’t get that), and peace in the Middle East. Congress still wouldn’t call off the dogs. In his epilogue, Professor Ambrose notes what we could have had had Nixon not resigned, and he offers the thought that, as a direct result of the resignation, we got Ronald Reagan a few years down the road and a much more conservative political climate instead. Ambrose misses the point. It was not until the first term of the Reagan presidency that the executive branch reachieved self-governance. It didn’t last, as Iran-Contra—a very dubious inquisition into presidential “law-breaking”—was to prove in the second term. Meanwhile, a post-Watergate, “reformed” Congress expanded its privileges, raised its wages, and lined its pockets with huge contributions from political action committees. If Congress saw no incentive in making a deal with Richard Nixon to cure the nation’s ills in return for forgiving—or at least forgetting—Watergate, then what in the world would lead one to suppose that Congress would give in to a less vulnerable—even Democratic—President, under whom it could feed even more off special interests and maintain gridlock?
This is the continuing story of Watergate, of why it is so difficult—even with a Democratic administration coming to power—to view it as history. As for Richard Nixon, the enigma remains. One hopes that Roger Morris, another Nixon biographer, will give us in future volumes more insight about the man and less inside baseball about the scandal that wrecked not only his presidency but perhaps our separation of powers as well.
[Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973-1990, by Stephen E. Ambrose (New York: Simon & Schuster) 667 pp., $27.50]
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