Why the Russia Scandal Is Nothing Like Watergate
It’s been framing the national conversation for months. The day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May, the New York Times headlined its front-page analysis: “In Trump’s Firing of Comey, echoes of Watergate.” And with each guilty plea, with each new speculation about what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating, the echoes grow louder. Can a president obstruct justice? Or, is it true that, as Richard Nixon once famously said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”? If Trump’s actions don’t rise to a criminal offense, might they meet the highly vague standard of an “impeachable” offense? If Trump fires Mueller, would that be the second coming of the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s dismissal of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox set the nation on an inexorable path toward impeachment, averted only because Nixon resigned? To watch CNN most days, as its convoy of panels connect dots and peer around corners looking for the next revelation, is to become convinced that we may well be on the verge of Watergate—The Sequel.
As I argued here last month, the political terrain is radically different than it was 40-plus years ago. But to really understand why the Watergate analogy is so rickety, try this thought experiment: Look at what happened back in 1973 and 1974 as if those events had taken place under today’s political climate. The odds are very good that Nixon never would have left office.
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First, put both houses of Congress under Republican control, instead of Democrats holding a 50-seat advantage in the House and a 56-seat majority in the Senate. That means, of course, that every committee in both houses is chaired by a Republican, instinctively inclined to protect the president of his own party (they were all men back then). Second, if those Republicans were like today’s, there’d be no liberal GOP members of Congress like Senators Javits, Weicker, Case, Mathias, Hatfield and Packwood. The caucus in both houses would be much more homogenous, much more partisan, much more inclined to cast any attack on the president and his White House as a partisan attack.
Second, imagine that years before Watergate, significant new media outlets had emerged, fundamentally opposed to the ideology and outlook of what we now call the mainstream media. Instead of information flowing solely from three television networks and an enthusiastically adversarial press, millions of Americans every day heard hours of radio talk devoted to casting doubt on even the most factual assertions of the “lamestream” media. Instead of a world where no political debate was heard or seen between the end of the evening news and the arrival of the morning paper, the most-watched news network unleashed nightly assaults on the Watergate story. White House counsel John Dean describing a “cancer” on the presidency? A turncoat, looking only to save his own skin. Washington Post stories that “followed the money” from Nixon campaign aides to the Watergate burglars? “Fake news.” A Senator Sam Ervin demanding the facts? A hard-shell segregationist who opposed the landmark civil rights bills.
Third, those same new media outlets would have laid down an endless barrage of attacks on the objectivity and fairness of Special Prosecutor Cox. He was a Kennedy ally, for heaven’s sakes, a bow-tie wearing, blue-blooded elitist of the kind who had nothing but contempt for the everyman Nixon. Look at his credentials! From St. Paul’s prep school to Harvard and Harvard Law School to stints as a labor lawyer in FDR’s administration and as JFK’s labor adviser and then his solicitor general, Cox was likely on Ted Kennedy’s Supreme Court short list if the senator ever reached the White House. Add to that the pedigree of many of Cox’s deputies, and the case for a witch-hunt was crystal clear.
Now suppose that the determination of this imaginary 1970s countermedia to undermine the establishment narrative was fueled by a series of mistakes, all of which put Nixon in a harsher light than the facts allowed. Imagine, in other words, that the recent trifecta of false stories from ABC, CNN and Bloomberg News had all happened with respect to the Watergate story within a week, and had been the subject of relentless assaults by Nixon’s defenders. In an environment where huge majorities of Republicans already doubted the accuracy and honesty and integrity of the mainstream press, the House and Senate Republicans responsible for Nixon’s fate very likely would have circled the wagons and he’d have ridden out the scandal.