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Friday, August 8, 2014

The day our nation breathed again

Telegraph Editorial

Somebody asked recently how the Obama administration controversies involving Benghazi, the IRS and other brush fires that have prompted impeachment talk among House Republicans compared to the Watergate scandal.

As scandals go, the IRS debacle is a minor laceration compared to Watergate, which was likened to a cancer, even at the time. ...

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Somebody asked recently how the Obama administration controversies involving Benghazi, the IRS and other brush fires that have prompted impeachment talk among House Republicans compared to the Watergate scandal.

As scandals go, the IRS debacle is a minor laceration compared to Watergate, which was likened to a cancer, even at the time.

Saturday marks 40 years since Richard Nixon became the only U.S. president to resign from office, and we can say this about the man: In his darkest hour, he had the wherewithal to do the right thing for his country, even as he couldn’t undo the harm he had done to his country.

The carnage that preceded that Aug. 9, 1974, resignation still offends the sensibilities of many who care about our Republic and the Constitution that governs it.

Just how deeply Watergate pervades our culture can be seen in some of the terms that have become embedded in our language, starting with the “gate” suffix itself. For years afterward, any self-respecting scandal that didn’t carry that suffix was hardly worthy of the name.

Some of the other terms from that period still linger as well, and some have evolved into generic political catchphrases:

n Third-rate burglary: The term White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler used to describe the break-in to Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Turns out it was a lot more than that. It was conceived and orchestrated from the White House and executed by …

n Plumbers: The White House team that was established to find the source of leaks emanating from the White House. Some of them graduated to burglary and other activities, like …

n Dirty tricks: The Nixon re-election campaign spent thousands of dollars on efforts to discredit Democratic presidential candidates, including sending forged letters on faked letterhead and sending false information to the press. Some of the latter also found themselves on …

n The Enemies list: A roster of Nixon’s political opponents who were targeted for government harassment. The White House, it seemed, would stop at nothing to cover up its dirty deeds, which led to …

n The Saturday Night Massacre: With special prosecutor Archibald Cox breathing down his neck, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire Cox. The AG refused, and resigned. The deputy AG also refused, and he was fired. It finally fell to an obscure solicitor general named Robert Bork to pull the trigger on Cox, sparking national outrage.

Watergate also gave us the credibility gap, “slush fund,” and “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

“I am not a crook,” Nixon insisted, but nobody believed him. Not even those in his own party.

America has never trusted its government in the same way since.

It has long been a source of intrigue among some students of government to consider what might have happened had Nixon chosen to defy the Supreme Court’s order to turn over the secret Oval Office tapes to the congressional committee investigating the scandal. Unlike the president, the court controls no armies that could have forced the president to obey, and the Watergate period still stands as a reminder of just how much our Constitution relies on the honor system to make things work.

Thankfully, it never came to a showdown because Nixon complied and turned over the tapes. Investigators found irrefutable evidence that the president was actively involved in covering up the scandal, and the president resigned when it became clear that he would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate.

The nation breathed again.

As former President Gerald R. Ford put it in his first speech to Congress after Nixon stepped down: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Watergate still stands as our country’s biggest Constitutional test to date, and the Constitution passed.