Rutland Herald and Montpelier(Barre) Times Argus

April 8th, 2017


It was probably inevitable. Still it is worth noting that here in the nation’s capital, the current controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election - with the possible collusion of some Trump administration officials - is now almost daily being compared to Watergate.

The break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex 45 years ago, remains the mother of all scandals in this town. It dominated all political discussion for a year and a half, reaching its climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In the memories of those of us around in those days, Watergate was a very big deal. It eventually consumed the Nixon presidency, negating even its significant foreign policy accomplishments, as I got to see first hand.

In May of 1974, I was a foreign correspondent for ABC News, assigned to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “diplomatic shuttle” between Israel and Syria. Its purpose was to resolve issues outstanding from the end of the October 1973 Middle East War. Kissinger had brokered a similar agreement between Israel and Egypt a few months earlier. But the Syrian shuttle was proving to be tougher. In the gallows humor of the day, reporters, staff, and security agents began to moan that we were doomed to spend the rest of our lives flying back and forth between Jerusalem and Damascus due to the Watergate scandal, because Nixon was never going to allow Kissinger to come back to Washington without an Israeli-Syrian deal, no matter how long it took. Actually it took a month.

The agreement defused a volatile situation in the Middle East. It is mostly forgotten but during the October War, when America backed Israel and Russia supported Egypt (and with the Watergate crisis growing,) the U.S. and the Soviet Union came very close to direct military confrontation. Only during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had they ever come closer to war.

Kissinger’s success led to a Nixon visit to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the restoration of diplomatic relations which had been broken by the Arabs after the 1967 Middle East War. In June 1974, I watched Nixon being cheered by 100,000 Egyptians- what the Chicago Tribune called a “Pharaoh’s welcome.” Nixon also made the first ever U.S. presidential visit to Israel. At any other time, all of this would have been seen as a major foreign policy accomplishment – not least because it took Israelis, Arabs, Americans and Russians a major step away from war.

However, the trip provided no respite for the embattled president as it was dismissed in most news coverage and by the Washington political establishment as a futile attempt to deflect his growing Watergate peril. A few weeks later, on the ninth day of August 1974, after the House Judiciary Committee had agreed to articles of his impeachment, Nixon resigned to avoid certain impeachment by the full House of Representatives.

As I said at the outset, the comparison of the Trump presidency’s political problems to Watergate is now very much part of the daily conversation in political Washington. Most of the prominent political figures of the day, Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) who chaired the Watergate Committee and Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tn), who framed the hearings with his famous question, “what did the president know and when did he know it? are no longer with us.

On the other hand John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, these days has almost become a staple on cable news. Dean was a central figure in Watergate, the man tasked by Nixon to run the cover-up. Ultimately Dean felt he was being set up as the fall guy, and after receiving partial immunity by Congress, he became the most devastating witness against Nixon. He later pled guilty to a single felony count and in exchange for becoming a witness for the prosecution was given a reduced sentence of four months. Dean generally avoids making direct parallels with Watergate, but is no fan of Trump. He has said, “Trump gives me nightmares,” and “half the population now isn’t sure whether Trump is insane.” Dean sums up Trump’s problem: “I see it as an unfolding disaster.”

The two journalists credited with the most vital reporting on Watergate –  the Washington Post duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – are still active, Bernstein is featured on CNN and Woodward is associate editor of the Post. Bernstein has advised reporters investigating Trump to “follow the money” as he and Woodward had done on Watergate. More bitingly he also charged, “Trump’s attacks on the press as ‘the enemy of the American people’ are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s attacks.”

Woodward, then and now, is more cautious. He has said, “The press shouldn’t whine. And if we sound like we are an interest group only concerned with ourselves, it doesn’t work with the public. At the same time we need to continue the in-depth inquiries (and) the investigations.”

Finally, this past week we heard from the man, who while Watergate was just beginning to unfold, admits to forcing himself upon a reluctant Woodward and Bernstein. He encouraged them to write the book which became “All The President’s Men.” He then bought the movie rights and produced one of the best films ever about journalism, starring himself, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

In his op-ed in the Washington Post, Redford wrote of democracy’s more than ever need for excellence in journalism. But what struck me were his concluding remarks, which begin with the question, what’s different between the time of Watergate and now? His answer: “Much. Our country is divided and we have a tenuous grasp on truth.”

After noting that in the time of Watergate, members of Congress placed defending our democracy above party interests, he continued, “Now is a different time. If we have another Watergate will we navigate it as well? John Dean famously said ‘the truth always emerges.’ I’m concerned about its chances these days.”

Frankly so am I

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