Sunday, June 18, 2017


It's been 45 years this weekend since the break-in that led to Watergate, although for many months, it didn't get much attention.  Woodward and Bernstein began reporting on all kinds of questionable and criminal activity involving the Rs 1972 campaign.  At roughly the same time there were various other stories suggesting dark doings by the White House.  But few people--and certainly not voters--dared to heed any of it.

The famous movie version of their  book All the President's Men lays it all out, but remember what the final scene is: Woodward and Bernstein continuing to type away, while on the TV there begins the second Inauguration of Richard Nixon.  They'd already reported much of the corruption and crimes we know as Watergate.

I was a writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix at the time (though for at least part of this time it was still called Boston After Dark.)  Though my work was mostly in the arts section, I did cover 1972 campaign events in Boston, and wrote  a series of reports on the Nixon revelations.  Apart from the Cover-Up to come, a great deal of what we call Watergate--and the activities that were the basis for several articles of impeachment--were already known, they were in my articles based on mostly widely available information.

I wrote one article focusing on the Nixon White House attempts to intimidate the news media, which went beyond claiming that Woodward and Bernstein and other major newspaper and TV network reporters were politically motivated, unpatriotic, dangerous and (sometimes even) inaccurate.  I recall that my editor gave it the headline "Beat the Press."

So much was known by November 1972. On the basis of all these stories, the Democratic candidate George McGovern called the Nixon administration the most corrupt in history.  He was criticized for political hyperbole.

Nevertheless, Richard Nixon, who was elected by a razor thin margin in 1968, was re-elected with the largest electoral majority in history.  He won 49 states.  Only Massachusetts resisted (as did DC.)  For years I carried a bumper sticker on my guitar case: "Don't Blame Me: I'm From Massachusetts."

With that electoral mandate, there was even greater pressure on the news media. The Nixon White House was able to basically destroy at least one career I know of.  Later it was confirmed how far this pressure went: the Enemies List, the ordered tax audits, the threats to take away broadcast licences, and attempts to intimidate newspapers through pressuring their advertisers, stockholders and/or owners.

That's one difference from Deja-Vugate.  The news media has been much quicker to this story, partly because (I suspect) people in government aren't nearly as afraid of being sources for information, partly because this regime is perceived as incompetent and dangerous, partly because of the Watergate precedent, and basically because they are freaked out.  Then again, everything about this is accelerated.

What isn't really known yet is how the public is perceiving this.  Polls suggest that it's just like everything else, split according to political affiliation.  Nixon and his minions could demonize the Washington Post, and for awhile a lot of voters apparently believed them.  The belief systems are even more entrenched now.  There is a hefty percentage of people for whom the major news media are irrelevant. The criteria for evidence most people would accept is narrow, if they exist at all.

The reporters who quite courageously got the stories of Watergate, along with the patriotism of individuals like Eliot Richardson who refused Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor, the Supreme Court in ordering that the White House tapes be released to the special prosecutor, and the courage of a number of Republicans in Congress to investigate and judge the evidence rather than just the politics--they all went down in history as heroes (although of course there are those who probably don't accept that history.)  We have yet to note any Republican profiles in courage, but the media and the courts have so far stepped up pretty well.

And yet, an outcome that ends up with the Republic somewhat wounded but intact, which happened in 1974, is not at all guaranteed this time.  This weekend a number of analysts and commentators were floating a dire scenario.

 It starts with the firing of the special counsel, especially if Deputy AG Rosenstein recuses himself because he might be a material witness in the investigation.  But one way or another, the ax will get into the hands of the next in line, and though she has some reputation for integrity she is also basically a political ideologue with little experience in constitutional law.

Without a special counsel able and willing to follow all the many lines of investigation, there will be little proven substance.  All that remains is obstruction of justice, as a basis for impeachment.  Or, even if Mueller remains, gathering evidence and making a case will take months if not years, and so far the assumption that a sitting president can't be charged with a crime has not been tested.  So again, it's impeachment if anything.

Update: As if to emphasize this point of the long haul, Politico notes that on the Sunday shows, Senator Angus King said the Senate's investigation into campaign collusion with Russia is no more than 20% done, while Dem Rep and ranking House Intel committee Adam Schiff  confirmed that the special counsel investigation is "just getting started." 

And pundits from former Republican speechwriter David Frum to New York Magazine's Jonathan Chiat and Andrew Sullivan believe impeachment, conviction and removal from office will not happen.

Andrew Sullivan: And so it seems to me completely plausible — even inevitable — that Mueller will be fired too at some point. More saliently, if his team’s work eventually exposes and proves Trump’s obstruction of justice, the only possible recourse, impeachment, will never happen. There will never be 18 Republican senators who will vote against the leader in this Congress or any other. We will have a criminal in the White House indefinitely, utterly impervious to sanction, and emboldened even further. And he will have brought almost half the country along with him, digging deeper in with every news cycle.

David Frum makes basically the same point about 18 Republican Senators, as conviction requires a two-thirds vote.

Chiat's piece elaborates on the headline:Trump Can Commit All the High Crimes He Wants. Republicans Aren’t Going to Impeach Him.  His reasons are political: the dictator apprentice is adhering to a far right agenda which will preserve his core political support among voters, the same voters that R members of Congress need to win their primaries.  The long version:

"Many conservatives opposed Trump during the primaries because they suspected, with good reason, that his conservatism was shallow or insincere. They worried that, once elected, Trump would abandon their priorities and pursue the most expedient course.

But Trump has not done that at all. The policies or talking points Trump has abandoned are the centrist ones: He would protect Medicaid from cuts, give everybody terrific coverage, hammer the big banks, spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, and cut deals with both parties. This week, Trump formally abandoned the last possible area of ideological compromise in infrastructure, “clarifying” that his plan relies on private industry, states, or cities ponying up the money. Trump’s budget actually cuts federal investments in infrastructure. He has positioned himself to the right of even House Republicans on domestic spending, and continues to push for their grossly unpopular plan to cut a trillion dollars from Obamacare. “The Never Trump conservative argument that Trump is not a conservative — one that I, too, made repeatedly during the Republican primaries — is not only no longer relevant, it is no longer true,” points out the popular conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager.

Trump is faithfully supporting the conservative agenda, so most conservatives faithfully support him. Their concerns are pragmatic ones about his effectiveness on behalf of their common agenda, rather than moral objections to the legitimacy and propriety of his actions. Trump may have committed impeachable offenses, but the impeachment clock has not even begun to move."

On the other hand, having lived through Watergate, I experienced how a president who won overwhelmingly in November 1972 could be forced to resign in 1974 because he had no political support, first of all in Congress, but also very little in the country.  Nixon's version of the populist/conservative base was called the Silent Majority.  They were especially reacting to the cultural as well as political turmoil revolving around race and Vietnam protests, as well as sex, drugs and rock & roll.

But at a certain point many of them turned on Nixon.  I spent several months back home in western PA during these years and I saw it happen there especially.  Nixon was right about one thing. People wanted to know if their president was a crook.  When they became convinced of it, they wanted him out of office.

The Saturday Night Massacre was a key moment.  Constitutional issues weren't so much the point.  It was that Nixon was acting like he had something to hide, like he was guilty of something.  People started admitting their doubts.

Another aspect of Dejavugate is that Nixon was also fond of the imperial presidency concept.  He said basically that if the president does it, it cannot be against the law.  He was an insecure autocrat, rather than a narcissistic one, but his behavior was similar: he ranted, he was vengeful, he demanded loyalty but showed little of it.  He was also very experienced and a lot smarter than Homemade Hitler.  But he seemed just as crazy.

What is called Watergate started with newspaper reporting that got amplified on the evening TV news.  But then there were the hearings: the select congressional committee, the House Judiciary impeachment hearings, broadcast in their entirety on all three networks, every day.  They were mesmerizing, and all consuming.

I probably learned a lot watching those hearings, though I remember very little.  I know I learned a lot reading All the President's Men: one concept in the book and the movie that is proving useful this year is the non-denial denial.

But basically I look back at the obsession to follow every nuance knowing that it's all time I'll never get back, and it was all time I didn't do work I might have done. And I've had painful assaults of obsessions with awful ongoing political disasters since.  On election night 2016 I knew I was probably going to be drawn into it again, and I didn't want to at all.  I still don't.  Wasting my time following all this and blogging about it is not going to make a bit of difference as to the outcome.  And yet here I am.

I also felt last November, and I expressed it here, that the way that election played out indicated to me that something well beyond politics was going on.  I still fear that's true.  And so even though Andrew Sullivan is an excitable boy, and a couple of major pieces will have to fall into place now for the apprentice dictator to become a real one, it still could play out that way.

Sullivan ends his piece: Over a year ago, in this magazine’s pages, I wrote the following sentence: “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.” We are about to find out if I was right."

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