Looking back, 25 years on, at the Watergate scandal


ARLINGTON, Va. -- It was 25 years ago tomorrow that agents of the Richard Nixon re-election campaign broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex and set in motion the biggest political scandal of the century.

To commemorate the anniversary, an assortment of interested DTC parties gathered the other day at the Newseum, the new museum chronicling the history of news gathering, to consider the legacy of Watergate. They concluded that good and bad came out of it.

The greatest good was Nixon's removal from office, sparing the nation an impeachment ordeal, in what former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee that year, called "the mother of all White House scandals."

Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who, with Bob Woodward, developed a devastating case of abuse of power and cover-up against Nixon, put in that the word scandal "trivializes" the case, because the Nixon tenure "was revealed to be a criminal presidency" that sanctioned and ordered blatant law-breaking.

Another good, said former Republican Sen. Howard Baker, vice chairman of the Senate committee that held months of dramatic television hearings on Watergate, was that the case "proved that the congressional system of oversight worked," as did the old journalistic discipline of "following the facts."

It was not, however, until more than two years after the break-in, and after Mr. McGovern had lost overwhelmingly to Nixon in the election of 1972, that Nixon was forced from the presidency. "Howard," said Mr. McGovern with a wry grin, "I agree the system worked. I wish it would have worked a little earlier."

He wondered, however, whether the system would have worked in the absence of an investigative press and the discovery and eventual release of the Nixon White House tapes.

On the negative side, political scientist Stephen Hess cited the campaign-finance reforms passed in the wake of Watergate. They limited contributions to candidates but left, he noted, the loophole for "soft money" -- payments to parties for organization building and voter turnout, and lately for issue advocacy -- and other negative unintended consequences.

Special prosecutor

Mr. Hess also mentioned as a negative Watergate legacy the office of special prosecutor, now called independent counsel. It covers too many officials and costs too much, he said, and should be reformed to cover only the conduct of the president, vice president and a few others.

Mr. Baker offered that the Watergate experience has made the American press more vigilant, but at the same time "created a sense of cynicism in the country" toward government, political institutions and politicians.

Leonard Garment, a legal counsel to Nixon 25 years ago, said that the retrospective was "a celebration of the press by the press" and "one of the greatest exercises in nostalgia." Rather than a watershed event, he said, the Watergate break-in was "the end of a chain of events that started with Vietnam," and "a great scapegoat" for all that has since gone wrong with politics.

It was left to Mr. McGovern to say the final benediction over Nixon: "Politics is a very hazardous enterprise if you don't have any kind of dependable moral compass." Nixon accomplished some good in the realm of foreign policy, he said, but lacked "a sense of right and decency."

There were mixed opinions on how the press has come out of the scandal, 25 years later. Mr. Bernstein said that of all institutions on which Watergate has had an impact, the press was the foremost, and not always in a positive way. Many young people, he said, "come into journalism and say, 'I'm going to find me a scandal.' "

The credibility of the press, sky-high 25 years ago as a result of the Watergate affair, has slipped badly, and public confidence in government with it. So the revelations of Watergate proved to be no cure-all for either institution.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/16/97

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