Pride Before the Fall

There has developed a little cottage industry in poo-poohing the Watergate scandal–and as a corollary, actually discussing whether Deep Throat was a hero or a villain in the annals of modern American history. (We won’t link to them, but they know who they are.) This is of a piece, we suppose, with various evil revisionists wondering out loud again whether Vietnam wasn’t such a bad idea after all. (Hey, maybe we won that war if we just say we won it–why didn’t we think of that before? Then we can go back to calling all those anti-war hippies traitors again! It was dissent that subverted our efforts in Vietnam, duh!)

For anyone who hasn’t taken the time to reread “All the President’s Men” in the past year–or for those who have forgotten what all the fuss was about–we would have suggested last week’s rebroadcast of Frontline’s excellent “Watergate Plus Thirty: Shadow of History.” (We just got around to it on TiVo last night.)

One word: Chilling. And we’re not talking just about Terry Lenzner’s glasses.

The intentional recasting in the title–Watergate as history that seems to continue to haunt the nation, if not repeat itself–becomes especially concrete in the last five minutes of the show, where convictor and convict alike agree that between the Nixon Presidency and the present one there are striking similarities in spirit and deed.

For anyone still not clear on precisely what all the fuss was about, let’s summarize: The President of the United States thought he was above the law. In fact, he believed he was the personification of the law, and that the same expectations of morality that applied to all other Americans did not apply to him or his inner circle.

But that’s just the half of it. This arrogance coupled with deep suspicion and even enmity toward anyone who dissented with our sovereign leader is what, for a few dark moments in 1973, brought the US dangerously close to martial law at the hands of a President who may, for a few moments, have actually toyed with the idea of defying the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is a false sense of optimism that suggests that Watergate “proved the system works” to people of good will. On the contrary, Watergate’s main valent may have been teaching bad folks a useful trick or two. (Note to self: No secret tapes! No press access! No internal dissent! A vice president with that special John Ehrlichman sneer!)