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June 17, 2022 [LINK / comment]

Watergate: the 50th anniversary

Among people of my age group, I had a rather "precocious" degree of interest in politics since I was 12 years old or so. The Vietnam War and social conflicts related to the civil rights movement were obvious reasons why anyone would become absorbed by politics in the late 1960s, but in my case I was "following in my father's footsteps." (He was a professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.) So, by the time the Watergate scandal erupted in June 1972, I was already a "seasoned" observer. The Vietnam War was heating up again, and Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam in response to the Communist spring offensive. Would these events threaten Nixon's prospects for winning re-election in November?

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for burglarizing the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington. Eventually it became clear that they were working for the Nixon White House, which you might think would be a pretty big deal. For first several months, however, Watergate elicited little more than a big yawn from most Americans. It was just a "third-rate burglary." To my dismay, Watergate had virtually no effect on the presidential campaign, and Nixon beat South Dakota Senator George McGovern by a landslide. After all, Henry Kissinger said "peace is at hand" in Vietnam, severely undercutting McGovern's main issue. (After the election, Nixon started bombing Hanoi again, but that's a whole different story.) Vice President Spiro Agnew blamed the Watergate hubbub entirely upon the "nattering nabobs* of negativism" in the media, a theme which came to dominate Repbulican political discourse in the decades that followed. Whenever something went wrong, they just blamed the "mainstream media." But thanks to the relentless investigations of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in January 1973 the case broke wide open. Numerous administration officials were soon facing criminal charges, and President Nixon was obliged to declare that he was "not a crook." Presidential advisers H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman resigned in April, and Attorney General John Mitchell did so in October, the first step in what became known as the "Saturay Night Massacre." (Hooray for Archibad Cox!) During the early months of 1974, congressional inquiries led to the subpoena of the White House tapes of Oval Office conversations, and when the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 on July 24 that Nixon had to turn them over, it was all over. He resigned effective at noon on August 9, at which point Gerald Ford was sworn in as his constitutional successor -- the first man ever to serve as president without having been elected to national office.

Contrary to what many people think, there is nothing "inevitable" about the way historical events unfold. Were it not for Woodward and Bernstein's determined efforts, or John Dean's noble "betrayal" of his boss, or for the conscientious leadership of men such as Senator Howard Baker (R-TN), Nixon might well have weathered the storm and served a full second term. But the truly decisive factor that tipped the balance against Nixon during the first half of 1974 was public opinion: the American people shifted from being sick and tired of hearing about Watergate to becoming sick and tired of the lame excuses for criminal conduct coming out of the White House. Why did public opinion change? People might not like to admit this, but then as always, "it's the economy, stupid." The United States was experiencing the worst bout of inflation since the years following World War II, while the economy was in a deep recession. They even coined a new word for it: staglation. Like it or not, that played a big role in the widespread popular discontent leading to Nixon's resignation. it is interesting to consider how economic conditions affect the current controversies surrounding the investigation of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

But there is another contemporary factor is one that frankly offers very little hope for holding future U.S. presidents accountable to the law. Whereas in the 1970s there was still a strong print newspaper industry and three major commercial TV networks that pretty much dominated the air waves, today we have a weak and declining newspaper industry, coupled with a television industry that has become so fragmented that there is no longer a common factual basis for discussing politics. Cable TV and new streaming services have resulted in news operations that "narrowcast" to specific audiences, reinforcing their pre-existing biases, rather than broadcasting to the masses. That being the case, the possibility that the minority (in this case pro-Trump) faction that is so skeptical of the congressional hearings that they just ignore what Rep. Liz Cheney (W-WY) and Adam Kinziger (R-WA) have to say.

To illustrate the problem of fragmented news, this past spring I gave an assignment to my students in which they were required to watch two or three different TV news live broadcasts and provide their impressions about the content and any perceived bias. In most cases, however, students didn't even bother to watch live TV, they just used YouTube to pick and choose from a few recent broadcasts. That contradicted the whole purpose of the exercise, but it made me realize what a big barrier there is to getting people tuned in to "mainstream media." Streaming videos has accelerated the trend toward "narrowcasting," making it very unlikely that many people will ever get the full picture about what is going on in Washington, or in their state or local governments. The ruthless exiling of Liz Cheney and just about any Republican who deviates from the pro-Trump party line is one of many signs that they Party of Lincoln has become captured by a cult whose members believe all sorts of absurd conspiracy theories. It is a very worrisome trend.

Are we better off with more news sources? According to standard economic theory, increased competition among producers (in this case, news outlets) will lead to higher quality and more efficient production, hence lower costs to the consumer. Paradoxically, however, it seems that we had more accurate news reporting back in the days when television was basically an oligopoly consisting of ABC, NBC, and CBS. It would be worth the effort to unravel why the theory seems to be contradicted by the facts. By the way, it is no secret that Walter Cronkite -- "the most trustworthy man in America" back in the 1970s -- turned out to be a strong liberal, after he retired. Did his bias affect his reporting? Probably yes, to a degree, but that did not mean that you couldn't believe the news that was being reported.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that if he had to choose between a government and no free press or a free press with no government, he would opt for the latter alternative -- anarchy? Well, that was just rhetorical excess, but it does illustrate the predicament that "government of the people" finds itself in today. If we can all pick and choose which "facts" to believe, there is almost nothing standing in the way of a ruthless future president clamping down on dissenters and turning the United States of America into some kind of an authoritarian regime.

* According to my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, nabob originally meant: "a native provincial deputy or govenor of the old Mogul Empire in India."

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 17 Jun 2022, 2: 27 PM

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