Wallowing In Watergate

GENERIC watergate nixon silhouette deep throat
This column was written by David Frum.
There should be no evasion here: Richard Nixon committed serious crimes as president, including violation of the campaign-finance laws and obstruction of justice. Under his bad example and following his perverse incentives, a whole generation of senior Republican officials marched into lawlessness.

That said, as it must be said, some additional perspective is in order as the big media descends into yet another spasm of Watergate delight:

1) There were very few if any crimes committed under Richard Nixon that FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ did not also commit, from snooping on political opponents' IRS records (something that Nixon was prevented from doing but that FDR regularly did), to violating campaign laws (an LBJ specialty). Standards seem to have been a little higher under Eisenhower, but that may be a gap in the historical record. I argued in my history of the 1970s, How We Got Here that Nixon's misconduct has to be seen as an exaggerated form of the misconduct of his predecessors, and not as some unique deviation of his own.

2) One reason that Watergate memories so galvanize the press is that liberal journalists can now understand that Watergate represented the very zenith of their cultural influence. For one shining, shimmering moment, they decided who were cultural heroes and who were villains.

They could transmute a bitter old segregationist like Sam Ervin into a defender of the Constitution for standing against Nixon -- and utterly destroy an innocent like former Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans for standing too close to him. There was no Fox News, no Rush Limbaugh, and barely even a Wall Street Journal editorial page as Robert Bartley would build it and we now know it.

Deep Throat is a perfect example of this. There is something disturbing, is there not, about a law-enforcement official becoming convinced of the guilt of his target, and leaking information against him to the media?

Didn't Clinton defenders rave against Ken Starr and his team for allegedly doing so? Isn't that the justification, to the extent that there is any justification, for Senate Democrats' unreasoning rancor against Bush judicial pick Brett Kavanaugh, a former Starr counsel?

And yet when the #2 of the FBI admits that he does so against Richard Nixon, it becomes time to pull out the block of marble and the chisels.

American liberals have lost this cultural power for good, but the memory of it remains sweet.

3) Finally, today might be a good day to recall that the techniques of cover-up used by Nixon were borrowed later by Bill Clinton. True, Nixon was covering up a grave political offense, and Clinton was covering up a tawdry affair. The Nixon administration was a somber and sometimes sinister tragedy; the Clinton administration an absurd farce. And yet in a purely formal sense, the parallels between the two scandal-tainted governments are striking, a point I made back in 1998 with this little jape, printed in The Weekly Standard and being posted today in the archive at

By David Frum
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online