Petty Crimes and Misdemeanors

Now that most of America’s grown-ups seem to have realized that impeaching President Obama would be an exceedingly stupid idea, we can more clearly reflect on the 40-year anniversary of when hounding the commander-in-chief from office made absolute perfect sense.

It was indeed on August 9, 1974 that President Richard Nixon ever-so-reluctantly bode farewell to the American public, following some two-plus years of high-level shenanigans all piled under the heading of “Watergate.”

The whole saga, from the break-in to the resignation, has been rehashed so many times in the last four decades—in books, films, TV programs, newspaper articles and the ever-expanding collection of Oval Office tape recordings—that it has become increasingly impossible to wrench any new or interesting insights from one of the more embarrassing episodes in U.S. politics.  We have acquired new facts, but no new truths.

But of course we continue yapping about it all the same, the Nixon era remaining the most potent of narcotics for political junkies—perhaps because it contains so much junk.

Watergate deeded the baby boom generation a whole dictionary of political clichés—uttered today without a smidgen of hesitation—and the event itself has become a cliché.  Having nothing fresh to teach us, but apparently incapable of dislodging itself from the country’s collective subconscious, the drama that crippled and ultimately destroyed the Nixon presidency and forever poisoned the public’s relationship with its leaders has, rather amazingly, evolved into a nagging bore.

The dirty little secret—the fact that our wall-to-wall nostalgia-fests tend to obscure—is that Watergate was not the worst crime ever committed by an American president.  Not by a long shot.  Alongside other executive malfeasance down the years, Watergate might not have been nothing, but it was a fairly minor transgression when you consider all things.  It is not worth the extraordinary attention it still garners, and the numbing effects of constantly reliving it do not make matters any better.

I’m not just talking about the break-in itself—namely, the bungled attempt by Team Nixon to get a leg up on the Democrats in anticipation of the 1972 election.  (Against George McGovern, Nixon won the contest by a score of 49 states to one.)  Most people agree that, while sleazy and illegal, the burglary was a silly little farce that hardly threatened the integrity of the republic or constituted a grave beach of White House power.

Considered in today’s environment, where everyone is secretly recording everyone else and everybody knows it, the Watergate scheme seems positively quaint.

Indeed, in the usual narrative, the whole point about the adage, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” is that the Nixon administration’s single-minded obsession with suppressing any and all incriminating evidence about the burglary was, itself, the raison d’être for punishing Nixon in the first place.  Had Nixon simply allowed the investigation to take its course, some heads would still have rolled, but Nixon’s would have not, and the country would have moved on.

The real offense, as it were, was thinking that because he was president, he could control the dissemination of facts and avoid being held to account.

It was the principle of the thing, as high school principals like to say.  It’s not that President Nixon and his underlings did anything major.  Rather, it’s that they went to such elaborate lengths to evade responsibility for something minor.  In other words, they demonstrated that they were inherently untrustworthy.

In this way, we could establish that, in practice, there are two forms of presidential crimes:  actual crimes and suggestive crimes.

The former are those that directly and plainly harm the republic.  Historically, these would include the Harding administration’s exchange of no-bid contracts for bribes with oil companies, or the Reagan administration’s exchange of money and hostages for weapons with Iran.

The latter, meanwhile, are the indiscretions that are not inherently destructive, but which indicate that far worse shenanigans are on the way.  Or at least that they bloody well might be, and you’d be well-advised to prevent them while you still can.

To wit:  When President Bill Clinton was found to have committed perjury regarding whether Monica Lewinsky was more than a mere pizza delivery girl, no serious person asserted that an affair between the president and an intern was, itself, a cause for serious concern as to the well-being of the United States.

No, the refrain was always something along the lines of, “If Clinton will lie under oath about an affair, then what won’t he lie about?”  Clinton’s brush with impeachment was, in effect, an indictment of his character more than his actions.

The question with Clinton—and also with Nixon—is this:  If the act itself is not an impeachable offense, then why is lying about the act any worse?  We might agree that dishonesty is inherently bad—and that perjury is inherently very bad, indeed—but let us not suggest for a moment that all lies are created equal, or that all abuses of executive power are equally harmful to the country or the office.

Does this mean Richard Nixon should not have been subject to articles of impeachment?  Not in the least.  The bases for impeachment are deliberately broad, and Nixon’s actions regarding Watergate all-but-demanded the three charges he faced—namely, “obstruction of justice,” “abuse of power” and “contempt of Congress.”  We can argue about whether the rules are just, but Nixon most certainly broke them.

What I would argue, however, is that the Watergate affair is far overrated in our collective consciousness of the last half-century in American history.  As with the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks, we have come to regard the investigation and its findings as a “loss of national innocence,” whatever that means.

What Watergate really did was confirm a few things that we already knew but apparently were not prepared to admit out loud.

Power corrupts.  Richard Nixon was a paranoid scoundrel who surrounded himself with other paranoid scoundrels.  Ambitious men, once in power, will go to extraordinary lengths to stay in power.  Follow the money.

Were any of these things actually revelations in 1974, or were they merely the end of a happy self-delusion on the part of the entire country?  Albeit with four decades for us to think it over, the answer today would seem to be self-evident.

More to the point, so long as the darker side of government is, and has always been, a simple fact of life, what exactly was so tragic and violent about being made aware of it once and for all?  Isn’t it in our best interests to know what our elected officials are up to, rather than remaining ignorant and assuming everything will turn out fine?

Indeed, Watergate may well have been one of the best things ever to happen to us.