Political Animal


June 08, 2012 2:47 PM Remember When Breaking the Law Used to Mean Something?

By Ryan Cooper

Nixon releases the edited tape transcripts, via

The big piece today is in the Washington Post, where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward share a byline for the first time in 36 years. It’s about President Nixon and Watergate 40 years after the fact, and how the whole situation was much worse than was thought back then:

Ervin’s answer to his own question hints at the magnitude of Watergate: “To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.” Yet Watergate was far more than that. At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.
Today, much more than when we first covered this story as young Washington Post reporters, an abundant record provides unambiguous answers and evidence about Watergate and its meaning. This record has expanded continuously over the decades with the transcription of hundreds of hours of Nixon’s secret tapes, adding detail and context to the hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives; the trials and guilty pleas of some 40 Nixon aides and associates who went to jail; and the memoirs of Nixon and his deputies. Such documentation makes it possible to trace the president’s personal dominance over a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against his real or perceived opponents.

The article is full of great quotes from the Nixon tapes as he became increasingly paranoid and irrational, going on profanity-laced tirades against journalists, the antiwar movement, and “the Jews,” among others. But what is perhaps most notable about the article is the implicit frame it presents. The sense I get from it is that Woodward and Bernstein are presenting a cautionary tale, a kind of story to tell young politicians before you tuck them into bed. “Be careful, kids, or this is where you’ll end up.”

The trouble with this is that recent cases of elite lawbreaking, up to and including top officials, are still almost too common to count. Just for the most obvious example, consider the fact that George Bush has admitted to ordering the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. There’s a ginned up controversy about whether or not that was against the law, but don’t take my word for it, listen to the chief law enforcement officer of the United States:

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder declared that the interrogation practice known as waterboarding amounts to torture, departing from the interpretation of his Bush administration predecessors.

And finally, from the UN Convention Against Torture, Article II, signed by President Reagan:

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Nixon was not the last of the presidential lawbreakers. Far from it.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • TCinLA on June 08, 2012 5:20 PM:

    If you want to see the real legacy of Watergate, just consider today how many of the worst Republican scumballs, the top fascist pigs, got their start as litle piglets back in the Nixon Administration. EVERY DAMN ONE OF THEM got their start back then, and far from learning anything cautionary from the experience, have become more brazen in their assaults on the country.

    Consider Exhibit #1: Karl Rove, hired to work as a "rat fucker" (their term) for CREEP (a more aptly-named political organization never existed).

    Richard Nixon is truly the fountainhead of everything terrible and awful in American politics. A virus that has yet to run its course in the body politic.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on June 08, 2012 5:26 PM:

    And now we see the fruits of allowing Nixon to resign and retire in peace.

    He should have died in prison, since the 8th amendment prohibited him being drawn and quartered.

  • TCinLA on June 08, 2012 5:50 PM:

    He hasn't been completely at peace since he died. I know very well that there is at least one person who literally "pissed on Nixon" there at the grave.

  • janinsanfran on June 08, 2012 6:09 PM:

    Good to see someone still cares that we were ruled for 8 years recently by an illegitimate administration carrying out war crimes. Unhappily, though the current lot may be formally legitimate, but the war crimes continue (at least I feel confident that targeted assassination in other countries will someday be thought crimes.)

  • Doug on June 08, 2012 7:14 PM:

    janinsanfran, even if "targeted assassination" becomes a crime, ex post facto laws are unconstitutional.
    The present administration no longer refers to it as the "Global War on Terror", which is a good thing. However, there are 'way too many people in this country, and in Congress, who STILL think of it that way. We need to continually reinforce the idea that terrorists are nothing more or less than criminals; not "warriors" and certainly not "heros", but plain old-fashioned criminals who need to be, if possible, apprehended, tried, and if found guilty, punished for their crimes.
    The aim of any decent legal system is to apprehend and try those accused of crimes. However, even in this country we don't expect the police to act in a suicidal manner while attempting to apprehend an accused person. It seems to me that we should apply the same criteria to the apprehension of those accused of committing terrorist acts.
    In other words, SOME times there very well may be the necessity for a "shoot on sight" equivalent; ie, drones or missile launches. Personally, I think that, on the whole, the current administration is probably getting it about as "right" as something as murky as this can be.
    Speaking as a retired member of the military, I definitely am NOT in favor of the on-going "militarization" of our language and the effects such usage has on everything, especially including politics!

  • schtick on June 08, 2012 7:18 PM:

    The people that should have gone to jail in Nixon's band of paranoid outlaws didn't and now we have some of the same spineless dimwit dems that not only refuse to go after the people that are re-writing and shredding our constitution, but are supporting and enforcing those same illegal scams including strip searching children and the elderly at airports nevermind the Patriot Act.
    Our meddling in the mid-east is coming home to roost. Bin Laden didn't come after us because he was jealous of our freedom or because he flipped a coin deciding heads he hates us, tails he despises us. We are the ones that flip the coins and talk out of both sides of our mouth as long as we can get all the oil we want for the oil companies that really own this country.
    And the drones are a whole other game. Something else that will come home to roost and we will claim, again, those countries are jealous of our freedom to assassinate and bomb them at will.

  • pjcamp on June 09, 2012 12:38 AM:

    Oh, but it's better to let bygones be bygones. Criminals at the top are way less of a problem than nobodies in the Bronx with half a joint.

  • dweb on June 09, 2012 6:10 AM:

    The ground is littered with evidence at all levels:

    As noted at the Academy Awards two or three years ago, "nobody on Wall Street has been charged with ANY wrong doing."

    And of late, we have Nev. Senator John Ensign, found guilty by the Senate Ethics Committee of mis-using his office to in effect "pay off" his chief aide after he was discovered to be schtupping the aide's wife. The aide recently pleaded guilty to illegally lobbying Congress (with full knowledge and assistance from Ensign, while Ensign happily lives back in Nevada and works as a veterinarian.

    Here in PA, the fracking industry bought off the legislature so deeply that no community has any power to regulate them and the state itself has too few staff to do so, although it is nominally charged with doing so.

    At least we still have Putin's Russia to hold up as a contrast with our democracy.

  • c u n d gulag on June 09, 2012 6:44 AM:

    By my count, as far as stealing national elections, Putin's still one behind "Baby Doc" Bush.

    Yes, all of the current craziness can he heaped on Nixon, who was the breeder and nurturer of ratfuckers.

    With some earlier help from Goldwater, who babied extremists.

    And Reagan, who invited Domionionst Christian religious crazies into the fold.

  • RalfW on June 09, 2012 9:25 AM:

    Nixon got caught, all that has changed is 1) the Republicans are more sophisticated and brazen and thus need be less paranoid. 2) They've tilted the 'legal' field with things like Citizens United and a deadlocked FEC so that dirty tricks need not even look dirty.
    No matter the legalities, the essence is the same. A drive for power unchecked by ethics.

  • Roddy McCorley on June 09, 2012 12:02 PM:

    As significant as Watergate was, Iran-Contra is vastly more important. Whether you think Nixon "suffered enough" or not, the fact remains that he was indeed held to account. We can't say the same about Iran-Contra. The actions of the Reagan administration rose to the level of treason - selling arms to an avowed enemy of this country surely merits that label - and yet, the idea of impeaching him was off the table from the beginning of the congressional investigation.

    Why? Because Reagan was too popular.

    That's where the end begins for this nation. For all the Founders' foresight, the one thing that they could not anticipate was that two branches of government (now three) would just shrug off the entire Constitution.

    Watergate was the beta test. Iran-Contra was the rollout.