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When White Houses Go Dark

Watergate and the Lessons of History

Forty-five years ago today, all the President’s men were nervously awaiting the fallout from a break-in at an office at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. where the Democratic National Committee had established its 1972 campaign headquarters.

Naughty, naughty.

The White House’s shadow arm was a jolly crew nicknamed “the Plumbers.” Among those who would ultimately be convicted for crimes connected to the break-in were President Richard M. Nixon’s special counsel, Charles Colson, former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, and another White House lawyer with the wonderful name of Egil Krogh (pronounced “Eagle Crow.” Needless to say, he preferred to be called “Bud.”) They were convened at Nixon’s behest in July, 1971, initially to figure out who in the White House was leaking to the press. (Get it? Leaks —> plumbers?) Eventually they  became available for other dirty deeds. In the wee hours of June 17, 1972, carrying out a hair-brained mission to collect documents and retrieve some listening devices they had planted at the DNC offices on an earlier visit, several of them were arrested. The FBI quickly turned up a link between cash they were carrying and the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Later that day, John Erlichman called the Bureau to say that the President wanted the investigation terminated.

And it was GAME ON! The journey to Nixon’s resignation two years later began right there.

Our current President, Donald Trump, neither knows or cares about history, except when historical examples can be used to offer some narrative variation on his vocabulary of fewer than 100 words (“great,” “beautiful,” “our country,” “very,” and “bad.”) Because of this, he does not know what every undergraduate who will start college this coming fall knows: we study history so we will not repeat our mistakes.

OK, that isn’t really why we study history. Repeating our mistakes seems to be part of the human condition, and some failing high school history teaching manual has been promoting this fake new for years. Nevertheless, history does have certain lessons that Donald Trump, or somebody working for him, would have been wise to review before launching, and winning, a national campaign for President. And many of these lessons can be derived from the Watergate experience.

To wit:

  • Words matter. It was a very bad idea for failing Nixon to give his re-election campaign committee a name that could be reduced to CRP, an acronym everyone pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “CREEP.” This unforced error kept alive the long held suspicion, even among many in his own party, that Richard Nixon was creepy. Similarly, choosing a phrase like “America First” as a campaign slogan is likely to make people who do know anything about American history think you don’t just seem like a fascist, you are a fascist.
  • It is wise to choose a Vice President — not a son-in-law — who appears to be as, or more, corrupt than you are. At least it gives you time to think as he is falling under the wheels of the investigative bus. When Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew was investigated, and then resigned, over charges that he had taken bribes, it really did distract everyone from how horrible Nixon was! At least, for a bit.
  • Don’t listen to your children’s advice. What do they know? Of course they think you are innocent! If they didn’t, they would have to rethink the whole family narrative. For example, even as the House of Representatives was moving inexorably to impeachment in 1974 (the first article was “obstruction of justice” — sound familiar?) Nixon’s daughters were advising him to keep fighting. It was a terrible idea. Fortunately Nixon did not think women’s opinions were worth much, and he ignored them and resigned anyway. Jared and Ivanka are also full of terrible ideas, and they are currently breathing oxygen that someone else in the West Wing might need. Soon.
  • Don’t tape people. These tapes then become something called “evidence” to which investigators then seek access. Years from now, this rule will be amended to: Don’t tape people, and don’t say you did if you really didn’t, and especially don’t tweet it, because then the special prosecutor will think you have “evidence,” and when you can’t produce it, will launch a whole other investigation aimed at possible “destruction of evidence.” This will happen even if you send a memo telling people to stop destroying  to never destroy evidence.
  • The President is liable for crimes committed by his subordinates. This principle was established during Watergate, to the effect that claiming publicly that you yourself have done nothing wrong but maybe those people over there, your “satellites,” may have done something wrong, is a very bad  — very bad — idea.
  • It isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up. According to Mason Locke “Parson” Weems’ apocryphal cherry tree story, the boy George Washington and his father established this principle back in the eighteenth century, and it is as true today as it was then. Look at what happened when Hillary said to Bill, “Did you chop down Monica Lewinsky?” And he replied: “I did not chop down that woman.” Or something like that. Then he went on television and said the same thing, and we all knew he was lying the minute he said it, and that he had chopped her down. Eventually, after a lot of completely humiliating evidence was introduced, he had to admit it. Although Bill got to keep on being President, Hillary never got to be President, and she still secretly blames him for this, and so do the rest of us, if we are being honest, because we got Donald Trump instead.
  • If people are leaking, ask yourself why. It could be because you are making bad decisions, doing bad things, saying bad things to the people who work for you in a loud, mean tone of voice, or are a bad person. Or all of these things.
  • Don’t treat the FBI like chumps who can be bought like everyone else you know. Oddly, usually they can’t be: name a moment in history when the FBI “let this thing go” at someone else’s suggestion. Or took someone’s word that so-and-so “is a good person.” I double-dog dare you. Just because the FBI is even more right-wing than Dollars, Pence and the whole House leadership combined, doesn’t mean that they share a set of interests with the GOP. The FBI is on the FBI’s team, and their version of patriotism begins and ends at the boundaries of the J. Edgar Hoover building on E street. In fact, although they do many things, the founding purpose of the FBI in 1907 was to investigate government corruption, which can make them particularly zealous about things like the current Russia investigation. This, in turn, means asking them to let x, or z go is also a very bad idea, because it will provoke them into thinking you are treating them like flunkies, that you have something to hide, and they should look even more closely at that thing you want them not to look at.

But the advice that the anonymous informant “Deep Throat” gives to Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the film version of their memoir All the President’s Men (1976) may be the best, and most appropriate, historical lesson of all as we descend into a summer of investigative hearings. Fictional it may be, but it makes more sense in this political climate than it did forty-five years ago.

Follow the money.

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter and Facebook.

  • urbanexile

    “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House, these are just not very bright guys…just follow the money.” So cool. Thanks for this great summary of how not to repeat the mistakes of history when I am finally the most powerful person in the land.

  • Noyb Nal

    This is a very compelling analysis.

    “Our current President, Donald Trump, neither knows or cares about history, except when historical examples can be used to offer some narrative variation on his vocabulary of fewer than 100 words (“great,” “beautiful,” “our country,” “very,” and “bad.”)”

    Brilliant.

    I looked up Claire Potter, assuming that she/he/it is a silly student, writing a silly article informed by his/her/it’s Marxist professors. But no. She/he/it IS a Marxist professor.

    • Tenured_Radical

      Not a Marxist I fear — a silly professor who *works* with Marxists!

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