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40 Years After Watergate, It's Almost Impossible to Hold Government Accountable

Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track.

Richard Nixon bids farewell to the White House staff on 9 August 1974.
Photo Credit: Photo: AFP



At moments, “The Lessons of Watergate” conference, held a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. by the citizen’s lobby Common Cause, was a little like that two-man roadshow retired baseball players Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson have been touring. In it, they retell the story of the catastrophic moment during the bottom of the last inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the Mets’ Wilson hit an easy ground ball toward Buckner of the Red Sox, who haplessly let it roll between his legs. That notorious error ultimately cost Boston the championship.

As The New Yorker magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman wrote of the players’ joint public appearance, ”It is as if Custer and Sitting Bull agreed to deconstruct Little Bighorn.” Or those World War II reunions where aging Army Air Corps men meet the Luftwaffe pilots who tried to shoot them down over Bremen.

So, too, in Washington, four decades after the Watergate break-in scandal that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Up on stage was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, one of the first victims of Nixon’s infamous “plumbers,” the burglars who went skulking into the night to attempt illegal break-ins — including one at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

“I want to add something to the history here that I’ve never told,” Ellsberg said, then asked. “Is Alex Butterfield still alive?”

A voice shouted from a corner of the room, “I’m over here.”

And sure enough, it was Alexander Butterfield, former deputy to Nixon chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and a pivotal if accidental notable in the Watergate saga. In July 1973, Butterfield let slip to the Senate Watergate committee that Nixon made secret audiotapes of all his meetings at the White House, a revelation that cracked the scandal wide open.

We never did hear the story Ellsberg wanted to tell; he decided he needed to clear it with Butterfield before he went public. The Common Cause event was filled with such slightly surreal moments, kind of like a Comic Con for history buffs and policy wonks. Just moments before Ellsberg spoke, I had been chatting with former Brooklyn Congresswoman Liz Holtzman, when Butterfield walked over, introduced himself and told Holtzman, “I was in love with you even when I was at the White House.” Holtzman was a prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee that in July 1974 passed three articles of impeachment against Nixon. He resigned less than two weeks later.

I was there in the hearing room that summer — briefly — while they debated one of the articles. My first TV job was working for public television in Washington, and while most of the time I was in the office or studio, a colleague lent me her credentials to see a bit of the action. The day Nixon quit, I was in Lafayette Park across from the White House taping promos for our coverage (somewhere I have a color slide of me working with our correspondent while Tom Brokaw teeters on an orange crate next to me, doing a standup). I returned to the park that night, after Nixon’s resignation speech, where a jubilant crowd celebrated his departure. When a garbage truck rolled past, they began chanting, “The moving men are here!”

Washington was a smaller town then and Watergate had become a cottage industry. Everyone you met had a rumor to spread or a story to tell. Books about the mess sold like crazy — everything from Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling All the President’s Men to transcripts of the White House tapes to collections of Watergate “recipes.” A friend of mine and I led Watergate tours and peddled bumper stickers on the side: one read, “Nixon Bugs Me, Too.” The other was the simpler yet eloquent “Impeach Nixon.” In those days, D.C. didn’t have cable television to entertain us. It didn’t matter: We had Nixon.

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