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Watergate Weighs on Today's White House

June 07, 2005|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Shortly after a 91-year-old man was revealed last week as the answer to the 30-year-old mystery of the Watergate affair, President Bush cast the scandal as something from the distant past.

"A lot of people wondered ... who 'Deep Throat' was, including me," Bush said after news broke that former FBI official W. Mark Felt had been the source leaking Watergate details to the press. "It would kind of fade from my memory, and then all of a sudden, somebody would pop it back in. Some story would reinvigorate that period."

And yet, far more than Bush has publicly acknowledged, Watergate and its aftermath have exerted a strong influence on the policies and attitudes of the president and others now in the White House -- some of whom had front-row seats for the scandal as members of the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who worked in the Nixon White House and served as chief of staff to President Ford, has spoken of using his current position to restore powers of the presidency that he believes were diminished as a result of Watergate and the Vietnam War. By withholding details of his energy task force meetings and advising Bush to aggressively take the reins of power after the contested 2000 election, Cheney has tried to rekindle a broad view of executive authority.

Bush was a student at Harvard Business School when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. He watched as his father, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one of Nixon's most visible defenders, butted heads with a press the elder Bush believed was out to get the president.

Today, an arm's-length relationship with the press, a highly controlled message and a restrictive interpretation of public records laws are the norm at the Bush White House.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Nixon aide who also served as chief of staff to Ford, tried to stop Congress' post-Watergate broadening of the Freedom of Information Act. The act requires the government to disclose certain records to citizens.

Working with Cheney, Rumsfeld persuaded Ford to veto the legislation, according to declassified documents obtained last year by the National Security Archive at Georgetown University. Congress overrode Ford's veto.

Today, Rumsfeld often expresses his distaste for leaks and for the press' handling of scandals such as the revelations of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. Reflecting on Watergate last week, Rumsfeld made clear that he was not ready to declare Felt a hero.

"Anyone who sees wrongdoing ... who works for the United States government, has an obligation to report that wrongdoing to the Department of Justice or to the proper authorities in the department," he said. "I wouldn't want to leave any ambiguity about that."

For the current president, Watergate reinforced a set of feelings that already ran deep in his family, said Peter Schweizer, co-author of "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty."

"They have always believed that secrecy and privacy were important for leadership, because they allow decisions to be made without fear of leaks or outside influences," said Schweizer, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

To the Bush family, Watergate was "a personal failing by Nixon, not an institutional failing," Schweizer said. "Their view is that weakening the executive was the wrong solution to the problem."

As the revealing of Felt as Deep Throat became a kind of political Rorschach test -- with some liberals celebrating the FBI's former No. 2 official as a hero for spilling his secrets and some conservatives branding him a villain -- several people noted that President Bush's first public words on the matter drew attention to Felt's relations with the press.

"I'm looking forward to reading about it, reading about his relationship with the news media," Bush said, though he also noted that he did not think it appropriate to express an opinion on Felt's place in history.

John W. Dean III, Nixon's former counsel and author of "Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," said Bush's reaction to the Felt disclosure revealed his feelings on government whistle-blowers.

"He sort of took the line of the Nixon apologists," Dean said. "I can't imagine, given the way this administration feels about the news media, that they hold Mr. Felt in very high estimation."

One prominent Watergate historian said the president's mention of Felt's relationship with the press reflected distaste for dissent within the ranks.

"As the man who controls the whistle, Bush doesn't like when other people use it," said Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian and author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes." "He's not going to give any pat on the back to such people."

A White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, waved off interpretations of the president's mind-set as "an academic exercise." He declined to comment further.

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