I'm reluctant to mouth off about something like the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and all that followed. It makes me feel old. I never tell children how much they've grown, and I never say that their music is a bunch of noise. And I don't like to tell young people how things were back in my day. In fact, I like to think that my day is still going on. But then I heard of a public opinion poll showing that most people thought Nixon's trip to China was a more important historical event than Watergate. That, of course, is exactly what Nixon wanted, and the thought of his posthumous victory was too much to bear. I started to think, "Maybe this is what old guys are for." So here are some lessons of history, including a few we seem condemned to repeat.
In post-literate America, the version of Watergate that survives is the one embodied in the film All the President's Men. Two ambitious and unrelenting young reporters (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein) take on a band of conniving old fuddy-duddies (Nixon, Mitchell, et al.) and win. One of the reporters is short, smart, nervous, and Jewish; the other is handsome, WASP, and well-connected. Nixon, their nemesis, is driven by egomania, paranoia, and other psychological disorders. The country is saved by Redford-Woodward's buddy, a shadowy insider code-named Deep Throat.
It made a great movie, but there is a lot missing from that picture. One thing missing is the fact that Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee both had personal history in the intelligence world from which the Watergate story half-emerged (Bradlee in the CIA and Woodward in naval intelligence). But that's ad hominem (maybe). The big missing piece in the popular version of Watergate is The War (the one in Vietnam). It was all about The War. Nixon's secret police force (called "The Plumbers") was instituted to protect state secrets about The War. His program of domestic covert action—which involved the FBI, CIA, federal prosecutors around the country, and big city police departments—was designed to disrupt and repress citizen opposition to the war. It wasn't about Nixon's paranoia. He really did have big, ugly secrets to protect, and domestic opposition really was hindering the conduct of the war.
IN THE EARLY days of America's last period of permanent war (they called it a Cold War), there was a popular consensus (albeit a manufactured one) to support repression of dissent. That meant it could be done openly, through channels. In the 1950s, people were actually indicted, tried, and put in jail for their political opinions. I'm not making this up. There was something called the Smith Act, which made it a crime merely to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. People were convicted and did hard time. By 1970 that approach didn't work anymore. So repression had to be done through the back door and out of the White House basement.
The accidental discovery of the Watergate burglary briefly lifted the veil—not on Nixon's psyche, but on a secret government—and, for a while, it became more difficult for succeeding presidents to carry out secret wars and off-the-books repression. Reagan tried both over Central America, but he didn't get far. Today's permanent war on terrorism is still in the honeymoon phase. Right now the government can hold a U.S. citizen incommunicado in a military prison without charges for an indefinite period of time, tell The New York Times all about it, and dare anyone to complain. As Bill Moyers has been heroically documenting on his PBS series Now, Prime Minister Cheney is hard at work re-establishing the arbitrary powers and privileges of secrecy that were lost to post-Watergate presidents.
One relevant lesson of Watergate is that when the government has that kind of power and privilege, it won't stop using it just because it has lost popular support. Wait until our troops have been on the ground for a while in Iraq, or Colombia, or some far-flung province of Indonesia, and see what happens. Then wait another decade for Hollywood to make the movie.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.