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June 19, 2012 1:05 PM Annals of Spin: The Greatest Spin Line Ever

By Jonathan Bernstein

I want to mark the anniversary of the greatest spin ever: Ron Ziegler’s line that the Watergate break-in was a “third-rate burglary attempt.”

It’s perfect. Going back to front…the word “attempt” is often omitted, but it’s good: it keeps the emphasis on the idea that nothing really happened. Of course, that was a kind of lie, although I don’t believe that Ziegler knew that (or anything else beyond what was in the newspapers and the bland campaign statement the previous day). In fact, this “attempt” was the second break-in at the Watergate, and one in a long series of illegal acts, unethical acts, or just things that would look terrible if exposed. But no; it was just an “attempt.”

Burglary. Watergate wasn’t a burglary! Even from what was in the newspapers then, it was clearly some sort of campaign espionage. Calling it a burglary, rather than a break-in or a black-bag job or a bugging expedition or dirty tricks, is a great way to play down the seriousness of it and distract from the trail that goes from Watergate to everything else that it goes to.

And to cap it off: third-rate. What exactly was third-rate about the Watergate break-in? Nixon and others will soon argue that the target was third-rate. That’s a complicated question, I suppose (if they wound up with a stupid target, does that make the crime any less serious)? Third-rate — it certainly is true that the operatives (the “burglars”, as we all call them) were incompetent, or at least left a trail of mistakes and screw-ups throughout their work both for the campaign and the White House. Were either of these things important? Not really. And yet calling the thing third-rate is just perfectly dismissive.

Did it “matter”? I have no idea. In large ways, no. But in small ways…well, the cover-up really never ended, and part of that has always been the job of minimizing what Watergate was really about, and Ziegler’s gem was a piece of that — in 1972 through 1974, and then on through the argument of history. Sure.

Of course, among the many reasons that Watergate was a great political story are the great phrases. Ziegler’s “third-rate burglary attempt” was the first of these, and it’s a good one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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