January 6 marked the first time an American president incited a lethal attack on another branch of government—but the second attempt to hold on to power through a coordinated and subversive campaign. Watergate was the first.
As the House January 6 Select Committee prepares for its slate of public hearings—coinciding, as it happens, with the 50th anniversary of the break-in—Representative Jamie Raskin, a panel member, has promised something akin to the “Watergate hearings … in terms of explaining to America what actually happened.” But given the failure of the Watergate affair’s true nature to take root in popular memory, perhaps we should hope for better.
Accountability for the crimes we call “Watergate” was in many respects a success. Congressional investigators, law enforcement, and the press revealed what the White House fought to keep hidden; a president resigned; and various officials, including the former attorney general, were prosecuted and jailed for their crimes. But insofar as the purpose of accountability is to prevent a recurrence of misconduct, those efforts were clearly incomplete. At least one component of the accountability process failed to keep apace: broad public recognition of what, in fact, happened, and why—a story considerably graver than a third-rate burglary.
Like January 6, Watergate became a generic shorthand; its familiarity among the public is nearly universal. But as the scholars Michael Genovese and Iwan Morgan reflect in Watergate Remembered, “The fact that Watergate is now one of the best-known words in the English language has done little to enhance understanding of its ongoing significance.”
The shorthand is misleading. It refers, of course, to a failed (second) break-in at the Watergate complex targeting the headquarters of the Democratic Party—a single and relatively unimpressive item among an expansive catalog of abuses that shared the goal of securing President Richard Nixon’s second term. Those abuses, far from just a clumsy spying operation, posed the real threat to American democracy.
In its final report, the Senate select committee investigating Watergate sought to bridge the easy shorthand with the full scope of its meaning, arguing that the affair was among “America’s most tragic happenings”—not “merely” because of a burglary but because of the “corruption, fraud, and abuse of official power” that characterized a significantly broader and darker series of events. Senator Sam Erwin, the committee’s chair, explained in an accompanying statement that Watergate was a systematic effort “to destroy … the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected,” and then to cover it up.
As the senator laid out, the campaign involved, among other things, extorting corporate executives for cash; using laundered money to finance political espionage operations; treating government agencies as “the political playthings of the Nixon administration” to promote the president’s reelection; conspiring to pervert the powers of certain agencies, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, the IRS, and the FCC, in order to harass perceived enemies, especially members of the media; using espionage materials from the CIA to aid other burglaries; falsifying federal records in order to defame the president’s deceased predecessor, John F. Kennedy; and hiring “saboteurs” to devise and disseminate libelous information about potential Democratic candidates. Then there was the cover-up: activities that included subornation of perjury and buying silence with bags of cash and dangled pardons, and an attempt to enlist the CIA to obstruct an FBI investigation.
“Watergate was essentially an abuse of the power of the government to affect an election,” William Safire, Nixon’s onetime speechwriter, said years later.
During the fall of 1972, as details of the full campaign came into sharper view, the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that the Watergate “bugging incident” was obviously not an isolated event but instead “stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election.” Walter Cronkite, also that fall, explained to viewers that what at first seemed to be just a bungled burglary was in fact part of something “more sinister … a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage, apparently unparalleled in American history.” Nonetheless, much of the press treated Watergate principally as a story about a scandal—about a break-in and its cover-up. In writing about Nixon’s resignation, The New York Times referred to “Watergate” and then obliquely to other “related scandals”—which is to say, the attempted burglary and then, cursorily, everything else.
The Senate Watergate Committee from the beginning comprised teams investigating the broader campaign, only one of which was investigating the break-in itself. Yet as the historian Garrett Graff writes, the committee faced a dilemma as it planned its public hearings: There were simply “so many shady activities that it was hard to keep a narrative straight.” And so despite the extraordinary breadth of misconduct being investigated, “the burglary and its cover-up were the main event.”
The consequences of incomplete storytelling have reverberated. As the political scientist Paul Musgrave observes, The Unfinished Nation—among the country’s most circulated high-school history textbooks—features just two and a half pages about Watergate, “without mentioning any specific crime other than the break-in.” Today, the suffix -gate is attached to all manner of scandals, including those of merely passing significance, hardly reserved for severe crises of democracy.
Perceptions of Watergate’s gravity were mixed then, and are mixed now. In 1973, as news kept breaking, only about half of the public considered the issue serious. More Americans than not thought the press was paying too much attention to the unfolding affair, and a majority thought the Senate’s investigative hearings were hurting the country. Twenty-five years later, in 1999, three out of four Americans believed Watergate was no worse than other political scandals that had occurred since. (A majority that year characterized the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as either equivalent in its gravity or worse.) In 2014, a national survey found that nearly half of the public continued to view Watergate as “just politics,” including pluralities of both Democrats and Republicans—findings consistent with decades of polling.
The reduction of Watergate to some scandalous spying and lying is probably in part to blame for the ambivalence, and offers a forewarning to the House January 6 committee on the eve of its June hearings. Just as Watergate was not really about the Watergate break-in, January 6 is not really about the January 6 riot.
The assault on Congress that afternoon represented a desperate and violent attempt to prevent the transfer of power after a months-long campaign to do so had failed. As with Watergate, the campaign was bracing in its scope: using government resources to promote the president’s reelection; soliciting state and local officials to commit election fraud; pressuring the vice president to delay or block the counting of electoral votes; enlisting the Justice Department to sanction the overturning of election results; refusing to officially green-light the operational transition of administrations; devising plans to employ the military to seize ballots and voting machines; strategizing with members of Congress to assemble fake slates of electors; and then inciting a lethal riot at the eleventh hour. After pushing to place a conspiracy theorist at the helm of the Justice Department and advocating for the fake-electors scheme, House Republican Scott Perry texted the White House chief of staff in late December: “Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6.”
It will be the task of the select committee to pull together the threads of grave misconduct it has exhaustively investigated into a coherent story with an already evident truth at its heart: Despite having lost the election, the former president and his associates embarked on a massive and galling expedition to maintain the presidency at any cost.
The committee’s storytelling task is unenviable. On the one hand, the campaign to overturn the election—still ongoing—risks being remembered as no more than a spate of sudden violence on January 6. This was Watergate’s fate: an incomplete story that minimized the scope and gravity of what happened. On the other hand, meandering through the depths and messiness of the campaign—one that reaches across nearly every branch and level of government—risks drowning the public in incomprehensible (and perhaps unfathomable) details. This was in some ways the Mueller report’s fate. The troves of evidence gathered by the select committee will matter, but only in constant service of the story’s single and heavy truth.
The purpose of the current congressional inquiry is not to uncover facts and present findings as some end unto itself. Its purpose is to help us learn—to understand what happened and why—so that we may prevent it from happening again. How our recent and dark history is popularly remembered will almost certainly determine the likelihood of that history repeating itself.
Trivialization is probably not the sole explanation for the public’s still-mixed attitudes about Watergate. The equivocation might also simply reflect Americans’ downgraded expectations of their government. If gross misconduct is to be expected in politics, then it follows that Watergate was “politics as usual,” or that the attempt to overturn the election was “legitimate political discourse.” It is easier to tolerate behavior that one has come to expect. The more we are unmoved by grave transgressions by powerful officials, the less likely we are to hold that conduct to account. If cohering a focused story of a sprawling subversion campaign is the committee’s principal narrative challenge, then its tough corollary is to avoid paralyzing cynicism.
This may be the panel’s more cryptic and consequential challenge. It will not be enough to put the full scope of misconduct on display and fashion a comprehensible story. It must also convince the public that such conduct is intolerable. The campaign by the former president and his associates to subvert an election is not tolerable. Attempting to cover up that misconduct is not tolerable. The groundwork being laid to sabotage future elections is not tolerable. Misconduct must have consequences, and it is not just appropriate but imperative that democratic societies expect and enforce a higher standard from their public officials.
The committee is not a law-enforcement body; it cannot prosecute any misconduct or criminal behavior it may expose. Nor is it authorized to refer legislation to Congress; it can only make recommendations. But for a brief moment in time, it will enjoy a national megaphone to invigorate our democratic instincts, spurring calls for realizing the rule of law and energizing demands for reforms. It can set our democratic sights higher.