Before the name had achieved quasi-mythological significance, The Watergate was just another Washington, DC, hotel. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters there. And there, 40 years ago yesterday, five men were arrested for breaking and entering.
The great political scandal that ensued from that burglary riveted an entire country in the mid-1970s and resulted in the first (and so far only) resignation of an incumbent President and also (as if to maximize the anomaly even further) the first presidential succession by an appointed Vice President (our first – and so far our only - appointed Vice President). As a graduate student during the summer of 1973, studying that summer for my upcoming General examinations, I (like almost everyone else I knew) followed, almost transfixed, the daily TV coverage of the Senate Watergate Hearings. The Senate Select Committee on Watergate featured such luminaries as Senators Sam Ervin and (Tennessee’s own) Howard Baker, while the hearings themselves highlighted a seemingly made-for-TV cast of starring villains. (Of course, that was still all back in the old days of common, shared news experience, when we all watched more or less the same story on TV, rather than hiding from one another as we now do in our separate, ideologically defined cable niches).
While on balance beneficial for the Republic, the ouster of a popularly elected President in the middle of his second term did set an unfortunate – or, at any rate, ambiguous – precedent. That precedent helped make possible the legally frivolous, purely partisan-motivated impeachment of President Clinton a mere decade and a half later. (As Karl Marx famously remarked, in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, history does indeed repeat itself – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce).
Another unfortunate legacy of Watergate has been the rise of “celebrity journalism.” Whereas with Watergate it was the politicians themselves (and their henchmen) who degraded our public life, it is now journalists and journalistic “pundits” who have collaborated in replacing rational, democratic, political debate with a political culture obsessed with scandal and mutual recrimination. The routine application of the suffix “-gate” to almost every real or contrived scandal reflects this ridiculous outcome.
On the other hand, the fallout from Watergate did result in some positive attempts to limit spending in presidential campaigns. The measures taken were imperfect at best, and any limits on citizens’ freedom to spend money on political campaigns will always labor under the suspicion of questionable constitutionality. Even so, a system was put in place, which for some three decades was accepted by both parties - until torpedoed by Barack Obama in 2008. If imperfect campaign finance reforms (and their often unintended consequences) were an inevitable result of the Watergate scandal, it was also inevitable that sooner or later a candidate would come along who could on his own raise so much more money than his opponent that he would opt out of the federally funded system – exactly what Obama did in 2008. Add to that the imperious involvement of the Supreme Court, and elections are now even more all about money. Thus, the outspent candidate in 2008 and long-time supporter of campaign finance reform, John McCain recently labeled the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision “the most misguided, naive, uninformed, egregious decision of the United States Supreme Court I think in the 21st century.” One result is that in 2012 such vast sums of money are being wasted on political campaigns as to make the election experience almost unrecognizable, were some Rip Van Winkle to awaken from that so much more innocent, Watergate-era world.