One of the high points of the U.S. media was the investigation into the Watergate scandal. Now, 30 years later, with President Ford’s death, the media are contributing to the cover-up they once exposed.
Most people get their news from television, yet there has hardly been any explanation of what the Watergate scandal was. This is of particular concern, given that roughly half the U.S. population was born after President Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. Gerald Ford would pardon him a month later. Rather than explain Watergate, we hear the same chorus from all the networks, that the nation needed to move beyond Watergate, needed to “heal,” and that the pardon, while controversial, was needed. The pundits agree that prosecuting Nixon would have led the country in a downward spiral.
But there is another scenario. Impeachment and/or prosecution could have shown Americans that no person is above the law, that all governments must be held accountable.
Let’s review the history: Nixon was running for re-election in 1972 against anti-war Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP — their acronym, not mine) had been conducting a campaign of dirty tricks against potential Democratic presidential candidates. In May and June 1972, Nixon operatives, called “The Plumbers” (so-called as they both plugged up and generated information leaks), broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, based at The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. The burglars, including an ex-CIA man and several Cuban American veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, were planting bugs and photographing documents. An address book on one of the burglars linked them to the White House.
Investigative reporting, congressional hearings and the appointment of a special prosecutor followed. The existence of audiotapes of conversations in the Oval Office was revealed. A defiant Nixon refused to hand over the tapes. When the special prosecutor refused to drop his subpoena, Nixon ordered him fired. His attorney general and deputy attorney general refused, and resigned. His solicitor general, Robert Bork (whom the Senate would later nix as a Supreme Court justice), obeyed. A congressional committee drew up articles of impeachment on three counts: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes to the new special prosecutor. Within the tapes was the famous “smoking gun.” Nixon was caught on tape conspiring to cover up the Watergate break-in. Nixon’s remaining congressional support evaporated. With impeachment imminent, the disgraced president resigned.
John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, became the star witness of the Senate investigation. He linked Nixon not only to the cover-up, but also to the criminal break-in of the psychiatrist’s office of Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. In an exclusive “Democracy Now!” broadcast with Ellsberg and Dean, the two former antagonists spoke together on national television for the first time. They described other dirty schemes planned but not acted on, such as “incapacitating” Ellsberg, and firebombing The Brookings Institution.
Watergate occurred within the context of the Vietnam War and the growing domestic demand for withdrawal. The scandal itself is a story of an unchecked, secretive executive willing to abuse power to stay in office at all costs. When the break-in was exposed, McGovern referred to the conduct as “quasi-fascistic.”
For Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Nixon’s resignation was an opportunity: Ford made Rumsfeld his chief of staff, with Cheney as his assistant. When Rumsfeld moved over to secretary of defense, Cheney became chief of staff. George H.W. Bush was named director of Central Intelligence. Journalist Robert Parry describes the Ford administration as the “incubator” of the current Bush administration.
If those emerging power brokers had witnessed a vigorous prosecution of Nixon and his co-conspirators, it could have elevated the country … and changed history. Perhaps a decade later, the Reagan-Bush administration would have thought twice about the Iran-Contra scandal, in which an unaccountable administration would defy Congress and illegally support the Contras in Nicaragua, who killed thousands of civilians. Perhaps the current Bush administration would not have dared to manipulate intelligence to invade Iraq, leading to the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
As the nation buries President Ford, let’s not let the U.S. media bury the story.
Amy Goodman hosts the radio news program “Democracy Now!” Distributed by King Features Syndicate.