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Watergate Lesson: Political Competition Needs Bounds

System still retains some of the defects revealed by break-in of 25 years ago.

June 15, 1997|FRED SMOLLER and DON SEGRETTI | Fred Smoller, a Democrat, is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, where he teaches a course on Watergate. Donald Segretti, a Republican, is a lawyer in Newport Beach, and is a guest lecturer in Smoller's course. Segretti served 4 1/2 months in prison for his role in a secret campaign to discredit Richard Nixon's political opponents during the 1972 campaign

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. Thus began a political scandal unprecedented in our nation's history, resulting in Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974. Looking back after 25 years, what are the lessons of Watergate?

By claiming that all of his conversations were privileged, and that he and those who acted on his behalf were "above the law," Nixon attempted to use his office to shield himself from due process. His argument attacked the very heart of constitutional government. Faced with a real emergency, we expect the president to break the law if necessary to ensure the nation's survival, as Lincoln did during the Civil War. However, the Congress, courts and the American people are not ready to grant any president absolute immunity for all illegal acts. The president holds an office with unique responsibilities and powers, but he is not above the law.

Among Watergate's most important lessons is that unrestrained political competition can lead to disaster--for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole. Both of us agree that the "whatever it takes to win" attitude continues to dominate American politics. This has resulted in more negative campaigns.

The Watergate investigations revealed that large corporations and private interests were able to bypass then-existing campaign finance legislation and donate an unprecedented amount of money to both parties. The Nixon White House aggressively solicited donations from several major corporations. At least two donors--the Milk Producers Assn. and International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT)--allegedly received favorable government action in return.

A combined amount of $90 million was spent in the 1972 presidential race by both parties--a shocking sum at the time. In response to the way this money was solicited, several congresses passed campaign reform legislation. However, the process by which our campaigns are financed today is more troubled than ever. By 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total figure for the race for the White House skyrocketed to $800 million--a gargantuan octopus of potential political corruption. Increasingly, elections are funded by wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and special-interest groups. All these contributors expect--and usually get--something in return for their investment (above and beyond an overnight stay in the White House).

Watergate was also a turning point in the role of the media in American politics. Prior to Vietnam and Watergate, the Washington press corps was often cleverly manipulated by media-savvy presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. JFK, for example, consorted with many women, among them the mistress of a known gangster. Though known, these trysts went unreported.

While we may disagree whether the investigation and exposure of Watergate was the press' finest hour, we both agree that many members of the post-Watergate media feel licensed by Watergate to act as "attack dogs" rather than "watchdogs." The prevailing assumption today is that politicians are moral lowlifes, or worse, whose primary goal is to maintain a stranglehold on their current offices, or dream of greater glory. The political "game," and not the issues which confront our nation, is the focus of most news stories.

A final lesson of Watergate has to do with the vulnerability of true believers. Many Watergate figures were comparatively young, ardent supporters of Nixon. Their energy, idealism and intelligence were channeled in the wrong direction; instead of saving the country, they broke the law. Young political workers who enter politics today need to realize that they will be dealing with forces that are much greater than anything they have ever encountered. Their eagerness to please a political leader or zeal for a cause can blind them to the legal and moral consequences of their actions.

While many of the defects in our political system that were revealed by Watergate are still with us today, it is important to point out that the scandal was also a result of an extremely turbulent time in our nation's history, especially the Vietnam War. The break-in at Democratic headquarters was done by a team known as the Plumbers, whose initial purpose was to spy on and discredit those who opposed the president's policies in Vietnam.

The Vietnam war is over. Watergate has come and gone. But the way we choose a president still needs reform.

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