Forty years after burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Lowell Weicker who served on the Senate Watergate Committee and later as governor of Connecticut from 1991 to 1995 wonders what has been learned in the decades since, especially among a lethargic voting populace. He penned this commentary that appeared in the Hartford Courant with a declaration from Bridgeport illustrator Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The early morning news show, “Morning Joe,” always ends with a segment entitled, “What have we learned today?” The panelists then chime in as to what they deem to be the salient point made in three hours of talk.
Emulating that format, my question today is, “What have we learned 40 years after Watergate?”
I realize that two-thirds of the population either wasn’t born or was too young to comprehend when five men broke into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel and office building on June 17, 1972, as part of a plot to plant bugging devices. But, I would also hope that American history courses exist and that they include this monumental scandal.
So what has transpired in 40 years of U.S. history that could possibly answer the question I’ve posed?
Let’s start with money. Richard Nixon and the Republican Party was awash in it during the election of 1972. Without accountability or transparency, cash became an elephant (excuse the pun) in a room of politics that included financing both the burglary of the Democratic headquarters in Washington and ultimately its cover-up. And, remember it was the cover-up that brought down Richard Nixon, not the “third-rate burglary.” Cash was used to buy silence from Howard Hunt, Gordon Liddy, the Cuban burglars, James McCord and many others.
How have we handled the cash problem in politics? With transparency? No! Rather with Super PACs awash in money and geared to spewing anonymous messages of hate. No lesson learned here.
What of the president of the United States and the Constitution, within which framework he exists? Section 3 of Article II says, “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” We know of Richard Nixon’s disregard for the Constitution. He stated and I paraphrase, that he, like Louis XIV, was above the law with the only limitation being a four-year term.
Section 8, Article I gives Congress the power to declare war. Yet, since Richard Nixon, how many wars have been unilateral decisions by presidents of the United States? I’d comment that such an acquisition of power by the president or abdication of power by the Congress is exactly the type of situation a somnolent nation woke up to with Vietnam, Cambodia and ultimately Watergate.
It is easy to blame Washington or individual politicians for what John Mitchell in his day called “the White House horrors.” Nevertheless, the fault lies with each of us. Oversight of the government is in the form of voting. We are the ultimate check and balance. Show me one-party government or dysfunctional government and I’ll show you mischief. And it will be called some kind of “… gate” after the granddaddy of all scandals. But in the final analysis, look no farther than the mirror.
In the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
What have we learned 40 years later?
For me, I recall that at its heart what we call Watergate was a criminal conspiracy to subvert the free election process: whether by dirty tricks, break-ins, bribery or wiretapping.
I just cannot believe that by its absence at the voting booth a nation is doing to itself what Richard Nixon failed to do but only by a whisker–to turn our elections on their head.