Rupert Cornwell: In 2012, Nixon would probably have got away with it

Out of America: Today is the 40th anniversary of Watergate. How would the US deal with the scandal now?

Share
Related Topics

They're getting on a bit now. John Dean, for instance – he of the "cancer on the presidency" – exudes a gravitas in his early seventies that he never possessed when he was the bright-eyed, impossibly preppy 33-year-old serving as Richard Nixon's White House counsel. Or take Egil "Bud" Krogh, once head of Nixon's notorious "Plumber's Unit", now an avuncular lawyer and lecturer on presidential politics.

Their old adversaries, the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were even younger, 29 and 28 respectively, when the story came along that would change everything. In some ways, they've changed less. Trim and disciplined, measured of speech, Woodward is part of the establishment. Back then, Bernstein always looked the rebel of the pair and still does, fleshy and faintly raffish, bearing visible evidence of a hard-lived life.

And all of them were reunited last Monday evening at an event in the office building that was the scene of the crime that ignited the most celebrated political scandal of the 20th century. In case you'd forgotten, exactly 40 years ago today, in the early hours of 17 June 1972, a private security guard called Frank Wills noticed tape covering the latches of several doors, allowing them to close but remain unlocked. He removed the tape, only to come back an hour later to find them sealed over again. At that point Wills called the police, who arrested five burglars, all dressed in suits and ties but wearing rubber gloves. The building was called Watergate. The rest is American history.

What a White House spokesman then contemptuously dismissed as a "third-rate burglary" would be revealed as the tip of an iceberg of wrongdoing that brought down a president. The affair turned journalists into heroes, and the suffix "-gate" into a gift for lazy headline writers trying to jazz up some minor controversy or indiscretion. Above all, Watergate proved that the American system, when faced with an ultimate test, worked. It showed that no one – not even the man in the Oval Office – was above the law. The country kicked out its leader according to the rules of the constitution and replaced him with another, without even an extra policeman on the streets. But would the system work today? Could a 21st-century Watergate be exposed?

There are some who believe that, had the internet been around, reporting Watergate would have been a doddle. Oh yes? In Watergate, nothing had been put on public record, there was nothing to Google. The internet might have helped on the margins – for instance, for finding phone numbers more easily – Bernstein argues. But, in the end, there was no substitute for old-fashioned reporting, working the phones, knocking on doors unannounced, and following the money.

Also among the speakers were Fred Thompson, who in 1973 was minority counsel for the Senate Watergate committee, and Richard Ben-Veniste, an attorney in the Watergate special prosecutor's office. Between them, they set out six essential conditions to get to the bottom of a scandal of such dimensions: an aggressive press, a strategically placed inside source, a top White House official ready to co-operate with investigators, a tough judge, tapes of key conversations, and a Congress ready to put duty to country ahead of duty to party. Today, a question mark, at minimum, must be set against almost every one.

Probably, a new scandal would throw up another Dean, ready to switch sides and to spill the beans. One hopes that there would be a judge as implacable as John Sirica, a source as authoritative as the then deputy FBI director, Mark Felt, aka "Deep Throat", reporters as resourceful and diligent as Bernstein and Woodward, and an editor as brave and committed to the story as the Post's Ben Bradlee. But would a modern Bradlee have the resources? Newspapers are in financial straits; investigative journalism, requiring time and money with no guarantee of ultimate reward, is a luxury ever fewer media outlets can afford. Independent websites and public interest groups can fill some of the gaps, but not all of them.

As for Congressional bipartisanship, forget it. The cross-party backing that gave the Senate's Watergate committee real clout is all but inconceivable in today's divided Washington.

And presidents, too, are much warier. Modern emails are a treasure trove for historians but tell only part of the story. And, as far as one can tell, there are no longer taping devices that preserve every presidential word, offering incontrovertible evidence to cut short the "he said, she said" disputes with which many scandals peter out.

Without the tapes, Nixon would almost certainly have got away with it. But sitting in Monday's audience was the 86-year-old Alexander Butterfield, one-time assistant to the president. It was Butterfield who, on 16 July 1973, appeared before the Senate committee and, in answer to a question from Thompson, confirmed the existence of a White House taping system. In doing so, he sealed Nixon's fate.

Most depressing perhaps, the campaign finance reforms passed by a post-Watergate Congress are today all but gone, given a helpful kick on the way by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that reopened the floodgates to unlimited individual campaign donations. Once again, perhaps inevitably, money rules. And even the 1960s building itself looks past its sell-by date. Half the offices are empty (the new owners promise a total refurbishment). Not just the scandal but also the scandal's very setting are relics from a vanished age.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The infrastructure, support services and const...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My cousin drowned on a migrant boat – would he have been saved if a photo of him had gone viral?

Zena Agha
Air pollution in London has reached illegally high levels  

Boris Johnson is planning a cruise ship terminal for London - but what about his promise for cleaner air?

Mira Bar Hillel
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border