Many Americans have never experienced what is happening in the country now and so they are watching and reading the news of the collapse of Donald Trump’s presidency with a mix of amusement, excitement, bewilderment, and just plain wonder. But for those of us old enough to have lived through the Watergate scandal, what is happening now is very much déjà vu.
In the summer of 1973, I was between my first and second years of law school when the Watergate hearings in the U.S. Senate took place. The burglary by Nixon’s “plumbers” (Google it for more details) had taken place the previous summer. It could have been an election changer (as 1972 was a presidential election year) had we had the kind of 24/7 cable news coverage of such events as we do now. But back then, news coverage was limited to nightly broadcasts on the three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). We didn’t have cable (CNN didn’t debut until 1980), and no one thought to provide more news on TV than the 30-minute broadcasts that featured icons like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
Newspapers were a major source of news in those days. We’d hear a snippet of news on the nightly broadcasts and then wait for the morning paper the next day to get the details, if we were interested. Newspapers were staples for newshounds. Remember, we’re talking about a time in our history when the Internet didn’t exist, ditto for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and anything else that we think of as sources of instant information currently.
So to get back to the story, in June of 1972, the news comes out that the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, have been burglarized, and the burglars have been caught in the act. At first, the news is kind of yawned at; it is reported below the fold on the front page of the New York Times (making it only the fourth or fifth biggest story of another dull news day, instead of the lead it might have been today). And, as I recall, there was a little coverage on the evening newscasts, mostly just reporting the seemingly strange cast of characters (a former low-level CIA operative and a couple of Cuban immigrants, who had escaped Castro’s rule a decade earlier, among the five who were arrested). No one understood what their motive was at first, and the news kind of died out about the whole incident. The burglars were represented by an attorney from the Nixon administration; their case was set for trial. No one really cared all that much.
But a couple of cub reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) for the Washington Post paid attention to the “third-rate burglary,” as it was being dubbed. They attended the arraignment of the defendants and discovered that one of them was a Nixon campaign official. They decided to stay on the story, and, little by little, they uncovered a trail that led to the White House and the President. Within that first week, as they—and we—later discovered, Nixon had begun the massive attempt to cover-up the connection of the burglars to his campaign. “Woodstein” went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for their investigative reporting of the crimes that led to the resignation of the president in August of 1974 (26 months after the burglary).
The TV coverage got intense when the Senate put together a special committee, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, to investigate the scandal. A year had passed since the burglary, and in that year, the Post reporters had secured the help of a source they called “Deep Throat.” His identity was never revealed (until his death), but he told the reporters to “follow the money.” And they did, thereby uncovering a massive slush fund of cash (six million dollars) that was being used to keep the lid on the connection to the Nixon White House.
The Watergate hearings were must viewing for a young law student, but it also captivated the nation, especially when a low-level White House employee, Alexander Butterfield, innocently testified that the President had a taping system in the White House that recorded every single conversation that took place in the Oval Office. The tapes then became the sought-after evidence that led to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon fired the Special Prosecutor his Attorney General had appointed. (Archibald Cox was only fired after the AG, Elliot Richardson, and the Deputy AG, William Ruckelshaus, had resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order; then-Inspector General Robert Bork—yes, that Robert Bork—carried out the order.)
Cox was then replaced by Leon Jaworski, and he went after the tapes, finally getting a Supreme Court ruling that required the President to turn them over. At that point, the nation faced a true constitutional crisis, for had Nixon refused he would have put the executive branch of government in direct confrontation with Congress and the Supreme Court. Without intending to sound overly dramatic, it was a moment when the country’s continued existence as a democratic republic, governed by a Constitution and the rule of law, was at grave risk.
Nixon, however, did turn over the tapes. They revealed that he had been aware of and had directly supervised aspects of the cover-up. Less than two weeks later, he resigned.
Flash forward forty-five years, and we are in the throes of another potential constitutional crisis. This time, the crime will not be a “third-rate burglary.” It will be acts of collusion by members of the Trump campaign with the Russians who attempted to hack into and otherwise disrupt the presidential election of 2016. Whether the collusion actually took place has yet to be established, but the evidence is mounting and with the appointment of Robert Mueller as the special counsel in charge of the investigation, the great likelihood exists that criminal charges will be filed.
But unlike what happened with Watergate, the reporting has been widespread, with the New York Times and Washington Post turning their full stable of reporters loose to uncover “breaking news” on an almost non-stop pace. And, also unlike Watergate, those reporters aren’t just relying on a single “Deep Throat.” Countless leaks from untold numbers of government sources are occurring daily. And many of these are coming from within Trump’s West Wing. In other words, the troops are turning on their leader in what has been termed a “soft coup.”
Trump may still survive this scandal, but the odds are against him if he can’t control his own impulses. He would be well advised to stop tweeting and to stop talking and to stop acting out. But even then it might be too late because too much has been uncovered and reported for the investigations to stop now. Yes, he still has his base of support, but his fans have to be getting anxious.
Stay tuned. This beats “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and anything else that tries to mimic the real thing. This is the real thing.