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Home | Blog | Princeton Historian: Just Get Over Watergate Already!

Princeton Historian: Just Get Over Watergate Already!

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Historian Julian Zelizer writes that Watergate-style investigations are OK sometimes, but we shouldn't go overboard in being mistrustful of the government. After all, "faith in government," Zelizer writes, "is necessary for a healthy society." As Rothbard notes below, the watergate scandal was an excellent event precisely because it undermined faith in government. Zelizer, however, tells us to "banish the memories of Watergate" so we can get over all this unhealthy suspicion of government. Writes Zelizer:

Often, this outlook [of suspicion of government] has salutary effects by encouraging politicians to make sure that similar levels of corruption don't happen again. But, too often, as many would say has been the case with the IRS, stories of administrative mismanagement are blown out of proportion, consuming Washington's time and taking their attention away from major problems. The worst effect of Watergate is that it created a climate where Americans fundamentally don't trust their government. It is one thing to be suspicious, another to reject altogether. Recent approval ratings for Congress tanked to 7% and for the President 29%. This is part of the broader trend we have seen since the 1960s. It is extremely difficult for government to do its job or for voters to have the kind of faith in government, which is necessary for a healthy society.

Writing in 1973, on the other hand, Murray Rothbard took a rather different view.  In his "Notes on Watergate" Rothbard early on saw some of the benefits of the scandal, and comparing Rothbard's view here with the current situation we can draw a few conclusions:

  • The Watergate conspiracy now seems quaint compared to the non-stop flood of government abuses we now face.
  • The American public, if presented with a similar conspiracy today, would yawn and simply accept it. "The president is just trying to keep us safe" we would be told. Indeed, Rothbard notes below that Ronald Reagan defended the conspirators as spying for "a good cause."
  • The Watergate controversy was wonderful for at least two reasons: 1) It put impeachment of a president on the table. 2) It led to "rapid desanctification of our national secret police." It's no accident that after Watergate, Congress passed multiple pieces of legislation attempting to rein in the CIA, the FBI and other organs of the American secret police. Most of that is all null and void now, however.

The text:

Notes on Watergate The Libertarian Forum Volume V, NO. 5, May, 1973 by MNR


By Murray N. Rothbard

This first appeared in The Libertarian Forum, Volume V, NO.5, May 1973

  No doubt about it: we were dead wrong in pooh-poohing the political significance of Watergate (Nov. 1972). In our defense, however, Watergate remained a minor caper of piddling proportions until James W. McCord, Jr., under the hammer blows of Judge “Maximum John” Sirica, broke and began to implicate the higher-ups. Sub specie aeternetatis, one set of politicians spying upon and sabotaging another is hardly of cosmic significance. But oh the deliciousness as the whole sleazy, robotic crew, even unto the highest reaches of the White House, gets its comeuppance! Every morning's news brings further revelations, further scandal, as the network of the corruption of power extends upward and outward. One by one they topple, as the President becomes so short-handed that some have to double up on jobs. One thing is certain: it couldn't have happened to a nicer or more deserving bunch of guys, or to a more deserving institution.

. . .

There are many interesting and even neglected facets to Watergate. We see the White House staff as the epitome of the Organization Man: people with one thought and one loyalty - not to truth, or justice, or honor, or even country, but to The President. The President becomes a quasi-divine figure in whose service any and all means may be employed. And yet what happens when the crust of loyalty is broken, when the pressure is on? Then, The President is forgotten and it's every man for himself, each rushing to try to clear himself and point the finger at his former colleagues. Truly an edifying spectacle of our rulers in action with their well-known devotion to the Public Interest and the Common Good. Come on, have at each other, fellows. Implicate, implicate! Before the mad rush, of course, there was the Cover-up. Here we see the inveterate instincts of the Bureaucracy to hush things up, to kick things under the rug, and never never let the long suffering citizen and taxpayer in on what is going on. So much for the “democratic process.”

. . .

And then there is all the wailing that Watergate is endangering the credibility, not merely of Mr. Nixon, but of “the office of the Presidency itself.” Oh no, surely not that! Here is one of the great consequences of Watergate: the demythologizing, the desanctification of the office of the Presidency that has taken on an increasingly sacral character in recent decades. In this connection, it is highly instructive that Bill Buckley has finally revealed his cloven hoof. Conservatives are, at the very least, supposed to revere the American Constitution, and if the Constitution says anything it is that the people, and not any branch of government, is sovereign. But let us forever note the reaction of America's leading Conservative to Watergate, and particularly to the increasing talk of impeaching Mr. Nixon. Said Buckley, perfectly seriously: “In America, the President is the emperor in addition to being the prime minister. He is, no matter that his term as such is limited, the sovereign. When it is contemplated to execute the king, it is necessary to think first about the consequences on the people, rather than on the judicial poetry of the sentence . . . If Nixon were impeached, the punishment would be visited primarily on the state . . .it is necessary to remind oneself that the sovereign is unique: that the punishment of the whole of the state is never justified.” (New York Post, April 28). There it is, brazen and blatant, from a man who sometimes likes to think of himself as a “libertarian.” The President is the king, the sovereign, and the king is the state, and is therefore above retribution. Louis XIV could not have said it better. William F. Buckley has revealed the quintessential nature of the American Conservative movement; it is not Constitutionalist, but monarchist, and absolute-monarchist at that. Bill Buckley is far better suited as a theoretician for George III than he is as an American citizen. Happily, our publisher, Professor Peden, wrote a letter printed in the Post (May 2) that called Buckley to task. Peden wrote: “When William Buckley baldly states that the President is sovereign, that to punish him for malfeasance of high crimes is to punish 'the whole of the state' . . . Mr. Buckley is guilty of culpable ignorance. He apparently believes that the American Republic is monarchical in its Constitution. As almost any legal authority or political scientist will attest, and even the layman can read in the Constitution's preamble, the American people are the sovereigns in this society . . . Neither the President, nor the Congress nor the Supreme Court are sovereign in any sense of the word. And it is either ignorance or dangerous mischief for Mr. Buckley to claim otherwise.”

. . .

“Impeachment”! What a glorious sound the word has! Until a few weeks ago, the very idea of impeaching the President, any President, would have been considered grotesque and absurd. It was only recently that former (another good word) Attorney-General Kleindienst arrogantly informed the Congress that if they didn't like the President's actions they could either vote down the budget or impeach him. Until a few weeks ago, impeachment was thinking the unthinkable; yet now, even such Establishment Congressmen as Rep. Moss, and Goldwater and Thurmond, are seriously contemplating such action. And the general Congressional reaction to current calls for impeachment are not that they are lunatic or absurd, but only that they are “premature.” Use of such a word seems to imply that pretty soon the idea of impeachment may indeed mature. And how many people really believe that Mr. Nixon knew nothing of the vast and extensive bugging-sabotage-espionage operations on the Democrats? When literally millions of dollars were being handed around under the table? And how many believe that he knew nothing of the gigantic and well-coordinated cover-up? Nixon, after all, is no boob like Grant or Harding: he has always been a shrewd and ruthless political operator, and he has always proclaimed the tightness of his political ship. Besides if he really takes “responsibility”, isn't that enough to mete out proper punishment? One of the demurrers on impeachment is that this would bring Spiro Agnew into the Presidency. Apart from the likelihood that Agnew would resign as well, would he really be that much worse than Nixon? Enough worse to give up the magnificent precedent that the use of the impeachment power would set? The precedent that would put every future President, and every American as well, on notice that it is possible to topple him, that the President is not an absolute dictator for four years, that something can be done, legally and without violence, to remove him forthwith from office.

. . .

 And where are all the loud champions of “law and order” in all this? Not, it might be noted, with law and order. The President wistfully refers to the Watergate criminals as good men whose “zeal exceeded their judgement” in the righteous cause of getting him re-elected. Governor Reagan says that these men are not criminals because they were acting in a good cause (I thought it was only the bad old Communists who are always charged with believing that “the ends justify the means”).

. . .

One fascinating aspect of the Watergate has not been commented on in the media. It was the breaking of James W. McCord, Jr. that broke open the entire Watergate network. Crucial to McCord's sudden decision to talk, in addition to Judge Sirica's stiff sentencing, was the advice of his new lawyer, Bernard Fensterwald. But who is Mr. Fensterwald, who played such a critical role in the Watergate revelations? Old Kennedy Assassination Revisionists know Fensterwald well: for he is the dedicated head of the Committee to Investigate Assassinations, which for several years has been the major research organization investigating the critical political assassinations of our time: Ring, the two Kennedys, Malcolm X. etc. Undoubtedly, Fensterwald was intrigued by the Cuban emigre-CIA connections of most of the Watergate burglars, connections which also permeate the Oswald-JFK Assassination case. Perhaps he was hoping that blowing the lid off Watergate might also lead to further revelations on the assassination at Dallas. And who knows? maybe it will. In this connection, President Nixon promises us that his investigation into Watergate will be “the most thorough investigation since the Warren Commission.” To old Kennedy Assassination buffs, this is surely the grisliest joke of the year.

. . .

Everyone, I suppose, has his own particular favorite among the storehouse of goodies unearthed by the Watergate case. My own is the cretinous behavior of the head of the FBI. L. Patrick Gray, Jr., in dumping crucial documents unread into the “burn bag.” Another happy result of Watergate, as well as the entire tenure of Gray, is the rapid desanctification of our national secret police. Surely, it will never be the same again.

. . .

While we all chortle at Watergate and its ramifying consequences, we might also keep a wary eye on the future. A seminal article, “The World Behind Watergate”, by Kirkpatrick Sale, has recently been published in the New York Review of Books (May 3). Here is an article which should he read by everyone interested in the men behind and around Watergate and in the politico-economic roots of the Nixon Administration. Mr. Sale traces the intricate and extensive connections between all the powers in and around the administration. Taking off from Carl Oglesby's trenchant distinction between the “cowboys” and the “yankees” among the power elite, Sale treats the Nixon (as well the Johnson) Administration as the embodiment of the relative accession to power of the nouveau riche “Southern rim” elite centered in Southern California, Texas, and Florida - as contrasted to the suaver, more sophisticated “older money” of the Eastern Establishment-corporate liberal elite. The Southern Rim tends to be blunter, more crass, more narrowly focussed and politically conservative, and more prone to short-range crookery; while the Eastern Establishment is smoother, more settled and cosmopolitan, more focussed on wider and long-range concerns, corporate-liberal, and more content to stay within the legal forms. There is no question about the fact that the Watergate revelations are smashing the political power of the Southern rim clique, and perhaps that of their very own Southern Californian President along with it. But doesn't this forebode a re-accession to power of the Eastern Establishment, which while smoother and less crudely obnoxious is in the long run more dangerous? After all, Rockefeller's personal representative in government, Henry Kissinger, comes out smelling like a rose, as do Rockefeller-connected economic czars George Pratt Shultz and Arthur P. Burns. The suspicious observer may ask: is the Rockefeller-Eastern Establishment pushing the Watergate expose for its own ends? Is it connected with a possible Rockefeller run for the Presidency in 1976? Does the emergence of Boston Brahmin Eliot Richardson and New York liberal Leonard Garment embody a return to power of the Eastern Establishment? And is Texan John Connally riding in to head the Yankees off at the pass? (Thanks to Floy Lilley.)

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