At the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, an act that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, the chief lesson seems hopelessly lost.
The lesson was this: Of all the corrupting influences in politics, beyond the anything-goes mentality that can drive participants to excess in their quest to win, none takes a back seat to unlimited and unaccountable money.
When the Nixon political apparatus got caught red-handed illegally entering the DNC offices on the night of June 17, 1972, one of the first responses, as Nixon himself said, was to find the funds that could buy the silence of the apprehended burglars. As a scheme to pay them was plotted, a bundle of money was locked in a White House office safe, and getting more of the same was pursued.
"Follow the money," now a popular phrase, is exactly what young Washington Post sleuths Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward did, providing the key early information that sent the White House to the dark side, trying to extricate a crooked president who ultimately could find no escape.
In pre-Watergate days, there was no legal limit on how much campaign money could be raised and spent, and by whom. In 1964, before television had really skyrocketed the cost of running an effective presidential campaign, aides of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater bragged they had raised and spent more money than any previous presidential effort. They put the figure at $12 million, a paltry sum compared to the billion or more expected to be taken in by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their benefactors.
In the Watergate year of 1972, Nixon's master fund-raiser, Maurice Stans, claimed to have nearly tripled the Goldwater campaign take, up to $34 million. One single contributor, a Chicago insurance executive named W. Clement Stone, shelled out $3 million, an unheard-of sum at the time, to re-elect the president.
After the break-in, Nixon's resignation and the jailing of leading aides up to their ears with him in the cover-up, Congress enacted what were called the Watergate reforms of 1974, amendments to an existing but ineffectual Federal Election Campaign Act.
They targeted fact cats like Stone, placing a $2,500 ceiling on contributions in any campaign by any individual, and $1,000 to any one candidate. No political committee could give more than $5,000 to a candidate, and strict reporting requirements were placed on presidential candidates to disclose where the money they got came from.
The new legislation also established the Federal Election Commission to keep tabs on the money. But it was soon hogtied by partisanship and overwhelmed by creative end-runs by new political action committees that invented the "bundling" of fat-cat money into candidate campaign chests.
With television advertising increasingly dominating presidential campaigns, the pre-Watergate campaign raising and spending was easily eclipsed with each succeeding election. A part of the Watergate reforms provided federal subsidies to eligible candidates who accepted a limit on their spending. But the subsidies were eventually turned down by candidates who realized they could raise more on their own and through new, supposedly unaffiliated, political action committees.
With the Watergate reforms already in a shambles, along came the 2010 Supreme Court split decision in the Citizens United case. It held that campaign contributions constituted an exercise of the constitutional guarantee of free speech that could not be limited.
Now the barn door was flung wide open to the Sheldon Adelsons of the world. He has reportedly just pledged $10 million to a Romney super PAC, in a political resurrection of the ghost of Nixon benefactor W. Clement Stone. But both parties are benefiting.
For years after the Watergate scandal, the Nixon resignation was acclaimed as proof that the system of American justice "still works." However, the demise of the subsequent reforms, once optimistically hailed as the answer to the corrupting influence of money in politics, says otherwise.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns continue to urge average voters to participate in the system by making small contributions. Nevertheless, the fat cats are back in vogue, buying access to the nominees and who knows what else with their outsize generosity.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.