Accessibility links

U.S.: Watergate Legacy Fades, But Analysts See Important Lessons

  • Andrew Tully

After U.S. President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 in the midst of a political scandal called "Watergate," there was legislation that was designed to restore Americans' shattered trust in their leaders. Thirty years have passed since the scandal came to light, but historians tell RFE/RL that Watergate's influence on the nation's affairs is all but gone.

Washington, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty years ago this week, a guard discovered a burglary at the offices of the Democratic Party in an elegant Washington building known as the Watergate.

The burglars were on a political errand in the predawn hours of 16 June 1972. They were operatives of the White House, which was then occupied by President Richard Nixon, a member of the Republican Party.

Due to the persistence of two reporters for "The Washington Post," this apparently minor offense came before the public eye and eventually grew into political scandal known simply as Watergate.

There is no evidence that Nixon knew of the burglary at the Watergate, but news accounts reported its links to the White House, which was illegally spying on opposition Democrats. And a subsequent investigation by Congress learned that Nixon abused the power of the presidency by becoming involved in illegal efforts to obstruct law enforcement because he tried to cover up the White House's involvement.

Eventually, Nixon had no choice but to resign or face certain impeachment. On 8 August 1974, the night before he left the presidency, Nixon said in a televised address to the nation that to continue to fight for his job would be bad for the nation: "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first."

This was the only time an American president has left office. It came at a time that the nation already was divided over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and it left many in the country skeptical of the politicians who run its civil and military affairs.

The Watergate scandal also had a more formal legacy -- laws addressing some of the abuses of power that many critics said were exemplified by the Nixon administration. They included legislation designed to make the nation's electoral system less subject to influence of wealth, and legislation that required the attorney general to avoid possible conflicts of interest by appointing independent counsels to investigate members of a presidential administration.

Three decades later, however, it appears that Watergate has little resonance with American society, according to historians interviewed by RFE/RL.

First, they say Americans are no longer as skeptical of politicians as they were during the years that immediately followed Nixon's resignation. Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, attributes this shift in attitude first to President Ronald Reagan, who sought to restore Americans' confidence in government during the 1980s, and to the 11 September terrorist attacks, which helped to unify the nation. "Thirty years is a long time for one scandal to have an enormous impact. Other events come along. And I think Reagan, and then 11 September have all made Americans in different ways look less skeptically at government."

Alan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, agrees. In fact, he says Americans may be too trusting of their government lately, given the muted resistance to efforts by the current president, George W. Bush, to ensure that there will not be a recurrence of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

These efforts include greater restrictions on foreign visitors and broader investigatory powers for law enforcement agencies. Lichtman says too few people are complaining that these efforts tend to limit civil liberties. "A lot of the post-Watergate distrust of the presidency has significantly faded. Here we see George [W.] Bush enjoying record-high approval ratings and really having the ability to do whatever he seems to deem fit, even if it appears to intrude on civil liberties to deal with this conflict against international terrorism."

Both Ribuffo and Lichtman say the legislative legacy of Watergate has faded, too. Larry Sabato agrees. He is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Sabato says, "While Watergate itself was a very disturbing episode in American history, the reforms that came out of it didn't work particularly well and may have been counterproductive." In fact, Sabato says, he believes those laws were not generally applicable, but useful only in investigating Watergate problems.

Sabato notes that the law creating independent counsels to investigate presidential administrations has expired. And he says the wealthy have been able to sidestep a law passed in the 1970s to limit their influence on political campaigns, and that last year Congress had to pass a new law to close some loopholes. But Sabato says he and other political analysts expect that the new law probably will not lessen the influence of money on politics.

According to Sabato, if Watergate has a legacy, it is the common legacy of history teaching future generations how to avoid making similar mistakes. "Oh, it would be much better if Watergate had never happened and if the aftermath had never happened. But it did happen, and it did demonstrate that under a certain set of conditions, the Constitution and its checks and balances worked. It also demonstrated that America was a very open society and that instead of sweeping our problems under the rug, we were able to deal with them in a very public way, even if it was temporarily embarrassing to us."

Ribuffo and Lichtman agree. Ribuffo says Nixon's case shows that an American president is not above the law, and that the nation's legal system is fair and reliable. "Getting Nixon did show that the system worked. It wasn't a military coup, there were no tanks in the streets, and it had an impact for a while. And just because that's ebbing after 30 years, we should still keep in mind that it shows how functional American democracy was."

And Lichtman says Americans today should remember the example of what he calls Nixon's abuse of power. He says they should not let Bush use his own power too aggressively as he pursues his war on international terrorism. Otherwise, he says, Americans have not learned the most important lessons of Watergate.