After 25 years, Dicky doesn't look so tricky

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The Independent Online
They threw a "Break-In" party at the Watergate hotel in central Washington last night. The waiters were kitted out as secret agents, the "greeter" was a life-sized cardboard Nixon and the guests, who included one of the real-life cops who caught the bungling burglars in the early hours of 17 June 1972, received as a going-home present facsimile compilations of the Washington Post's finest hours.

Just across the road, at the yellow-stucco pile known as the Premier hotel, the management was preparing for the ceremonial opening of Room 723, with its famously unobstructed street view. Refurbished in le style Howard Johnson circa 1972, the room will henceforth display objects of "historical interest". And today, to round off proceedings, the Premier will provide the venue for a radio phone-in by a successful national talk- show host by the name of Gordon Liddy.

Twenty-five years after the break-in that triggered the first and only resignation of a US president, the sequence of events that was described by its central player as "a national tragedy" is being repeated - this time as entertainment. There have, of course, been the appropriate nods towards history. A few days before the Watergate hotel's break-in party, Washington's two-month-old museum of news (official name: the Newseum) held a symposium in which participants from then and analysts from now sat together in a darkened studio regurgitating the facts, cogitating the evidence and refighting the old battles.

We heard President Richard Nixon's muffled voice on one of those infamous tapes implicating himself - with what now seems only mild profanity - in the cover-up that cost him his job and his dignity. We witnessed Sam Dash, who was chief legal adviser to the Senate Watergate committee, and Leonard Garment, Nixon's legal counsel, barely refrain from blows as they contested the evidence about the then president's fitness for office and argued about whether, with hindsight, he could have "got away with it".

Ben Bradlee, who was then editor of the Washington Post - the paper that broke and made the running with the Watergate story - told again how he decided to give his two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, their heads. Katharine Graham, the grande dame of the American press and then chairman of the Post, recounted how she quelled her doubts and let the story run, and of her personal relief when she learnt that the helicopter carrying the disgraced president into Californian exile had taken off from the White House lawn.

That was 9 August 1974, two years and two months after five men, directed by campaign finance adviser G Gordon Liddy, were caught in what was described by a White House spokesman as a "third-rate burglary attempt" of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. Nixon was campaigning for re-election and feared - wrongly, as it turned out - that he would lose.

As the years have passed, a Washington consensus, refined with each anniversary, has formed about the significance of "Watergate". It diminished for ever, we are told, the awe in which the presidency was held by the people. It marked the start of media and public cynicism about politicians and politics. It forced a rewriting of the rules on political campaigning.

It inaugurated a golden era of investigative journalism, when everything and anyone was investigated - though not always to much effect. It made celebrities of the journalists involved, and it made journalism - for a generation - a celebrity occupation. It justified the use of anonymous "sources".

While there may be a consensus about Watergate's significance, however, many of the questions that cried out for an answer when Nixon resigned are still unanswered. What were the burglars after at the Democrats' headquarters? Were all five of them just trying to replace a bugging device that had malfunctioned, or were they looking for something; if so, what - and why?

Who was "Deep Throat", the anonymous source that Bob Woodward turned to at crucial stages? Why did Nixon not destroy the tapes? Was he really deterred because his legal counsel said it would be unlawful? Even the celebrated question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" - whether Nixon knew in advance of the raid - has not been answered. The tapes - the ones he clung to for longest and fought a succession of legal battles to keep private - show that he knew of the break-in six days later and agreed to a cover-up.

The tapes also show - and this is the offence that would have made his impeachment inevitable had he not resigned - that he tried to subvert the judicial process (by blocking the FBI investigation into the break- in) and thus violated the constitution. They do not prove, however, that he instigated or approved the crime - although, from a series of prior events that would now be categorised as "sleaze", he clearly contributed to a political climate where dirty tricks were the order of the day.

Dispiritingly, perhaps, for the heroes of Watergate, the 25th anniversary may mark a turning of the celebratory tide. In the corridors of the Newseum, the next generation of Washington reporters seemed jaded - "a celebration of the media by the media", "the same old circuit" were the stage-whispered comments.

For them, it is time to ask some new questions, not only about how Watergate affected the image of the presidency or the pursuit of journalism, but about the substance: was what happened 25 years ago really so bad, given what seems commonplace now?

So the president used swear words in everyday conversation; so the president tried to stop an FBI investigation (and got caught on tape); so the CIA recruited criminals and $100 bills changed hands ...

In the light of the possibility that Chinese money may have made its way into the last presidential election campaign, that White House privileges may have been granted to big Democrat donors of dubious provenance, and that the Attorney General may have been pressed not to appoint an independent counsel to consider the legality of the Clintons' fund-raising practices, there is a risk that Nixon's resignation could start to look almost honourable.

The political right would say that the left-dominated media have treated a Democrat president more kindly than they would a Republican. But the very cynicism towards politics that was bred by Watergate may also be to blame: expectations are so low that even the alleged shenanigans of the present White House have lost the power to shock.

It is small wonder, then, that Washington's elite chose to mark the 25th anniversary of Watergate by dancing the night away in the company of a cardboard Nixon and a posse of sham secret servicemen.