Worse than Watergate? A History Lesson.

The fatal attack on the American consulate in Libya last month has suddenly made the work of conducting congressional oversight more appealing (at least to the GOP), but also led to a desire (ditto) to find out what the president knew about the Benghazi situation and when he knew it. Presumably this will only increase in light of Vice President Biden’s claim in the debate last night that “we weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again.”  The truth of that statement could depend on what the meaning of “we,” is—any such requests may have stalled at the deputy assistant secretary level within State, five layers down at Foggy Bottom and even farther from the Oval Office. But presidents have generally (if, to them, frustratingly) found it hard to distance themselves from decisions made nearly anywhere in their administration.

Oversight is a good thing, in my view. But whatever the quality of the policy decisions relating to Benghazi, one emerging talking point used by critics of the Obama administration should rankle any student of American history. Namely, the implication that the cover-up of which they accuse the administration is “worse than Watergate,” i.e., the scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.

This claim was made first (I think) by former Gov. Mike Huckabee in comments on Fox News late last month and reprised by Charles Krauthammer yesterday. After all, both men argued, “nobody died in Watergate.”

The Watergate link is implicit in the now-famous questions “what did the president know, and when did he know it?” (Originally asked by Republican senator Howard Baker.)   But let’s remember exactly what Watergate was, in fact – and thus what it was covering up.

We might start with the articles of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974, which charged the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power in manipulating executive agencies and violating citizens’ constitutional rights, and with refusing to cooperate with the impeachment process itself. An abridged list includes:

• burglary, in part via a subunit of the White House staff (the “Plumbers”)

• bribery and “hush money”

• wiretapping

• destruction of evidence

• illegal use of the CIA and FBI (sometimes, against each other)

• illegal use of the IRS

Actually, the last intersects with the first. Take an exchange between Nixon and his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, from forty years ago next week, October 15, 1972, a few months after the break-in at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, that gave the scandal its name. That break-in (there were others) targeted the Democratic National Committee offices. In the aftermath:

Nixon: One thing we did do, I think rather cleverly, was to review [DNC chairman Lawrence] O’Brien’s income tax returns. I think that’s why he’s so goddamn silent.

Haldeman: That’s right.

Nixon: And we followed up.


This comes from Stanley I. Kutler’s book of Nixon tape transcripts, Abuse of Power.

Kutler, however, broadens the context of the scandal to include what he terms, in his opus on the topic, The Wars of Watergate. He argues that the break-in occurred in—and would not have happened without—a much wider context that requires we consider “Watergate” generally to include Nixon’s broader battles with Congress: over the budget (impoundment, for instance, as discussed here), over secrecy and executive privilege, over the administration’s role in the overthrow of Salvatore Allende (and the CIA’s other “family jewels”), over efforts to infiltrate and discredit “subversive” groups opposed to the Vietnam War, and over Vietnam itself. On the last, in the present context, we would do well to remember the secret bombing (complete with faked mission reports) and invasion of Cambodia (which prompted the fatal protests at Kent State and Jackson State universities.)

In Watergate understood this way, people did die.

But we do not have to go so far to understand that the “worse than Watergate” notion is, well, a bunch of stuff.

10 Responses to Worse than Watergate? A History Lesson.

  1. scott orvin October 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    what about Obama’s first amendment scapegoat? You know, the guy in solitary confinement being held without bail: http://bit.ly/P71Bl9

  2. John Milne October 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    the “nobody died in Watergate” crack was recycled by Krauthammer and Huckabee from Nixon’s defenders, who used the line to compare Watergate with Chappaquiddick, in which a young woman died in a car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

    • scott orvin October 14, 2012 at 1:57 am #

      is somebody in solitary confinement without bail for making a youtube video?

      • Guest October 15, 2012 at 9:41 am #


        • scott orvin October 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

          oh that’s right. he is being held for a bunch of stuff. The guest who writes “no”, is apparently unconcerned with our first amendment rights.

  3. MyName October 15, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Oh I’m sorry, are you expecting a legitimate response to an illegitimate piece of off-topic trolling/diversion? Or would you care to expand on how YouTube protesting is connected to either the Libyan attack or Watergate? No? Well then maybe you should take your useless comment to the yahoo news page comments section where it belongs.

    • scott orvin October 15, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

      An unsurprising comment for somebody unconcerned with 1st amendment issues. Youtube protesting is unconnected with the Libyan attack, accept for the fact that the president has cited a protest against a youtube video as the proximate cause of the attack. He has also arrested the producer of the video, who is being held without bail in solitary confinement. Other than that, you’re right. The Lybyan attack has nothing to do with a youtube protest. It is pure fantasy, made out of whole cloth. Utterly without foundation in fact, and completely fictitious. As far as Watergate is concerned, the common trait defining the subset of presidential scandals would be the cover-up. Why don’t you define “troll”, and then explain what common traits I might share with such an ignoble set. I hardly see the value in such an activity, but at least you can spin your wheels and kick some mud into the air, my name. Much as trolls are wont to do.

  4. scott orvin October 15, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Once again: http://bit.ly/P71Bl9

  5. scott orvin October 16, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    P.S. Incidentally, the “Innocence of Muslims” guy is still in jail. Plus, he’s been banned from setting foot in the UK. Hey, remember free speech? That was pretty awesome.

    Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/10/15/heres-another-youtube-clip-that-should-anger-muslims/#ixzz29QtrCsUg

  6. scott orvin October 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    I guess My Name went back to the yahoo news page comments section, where he belongs.