Lessons from Watergate

On July 4, 1826, as citizens celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of America's freedom, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died in their respective homes. From that day forward, historians have enjoyed imbuing the men's synchronized passing with a kind of other-worldly irony, inspiring them to look both forward and backward in assessing the legacy of these Founding Fathers.

A similar event transpired last weekend, when two symbols of American justice and presidential politics died on the same day, just as the nation was gearing up for Memorial Day. To be sure, the simultaneous passing of Archibald Cox and Sam Dash will not be remembered with the same providential reverence as the Jefferson-Adams deaths, but rather as one of those fluky bits of timing.

All the same, in remembering the feats both men performed during a time of unprecedented domestic turbulence, one can't help but recognize how far we have come as a nation, and yet -- as always -- how history is doomed to repeat itself.

As chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign activities -- otherwise known as the Watergate Committee -- Sam Dash oversaw the legal machinations of the Congressional inquiry, a painful proceeding that would ultimately lead to the first and only resignation of an American president.

Archibald Cox, meanwhile, occupied a stormier perch in the Watergate scandal. Appointed as the government's special prosecutor into the affair, Cox was one of three high-ranking officials (including the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General) who lost their jobs on what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" -- simply for doing what they believed was right for the American people.

While the deaths of Dash and Cox have induced a predictable spate of Watergate nostalgia in the media, a more valuable lesson hides between the lines of their obituaries. Recalling their actions during the convulsive days of Watergate, I couldn't help but recognize how the very quest for justice both men pursued 30 years ago, and the bedrock principles of democracy that informed those efforts, are still alive and well in the current debate over the performance of our 43rd President.

Take Archibald Cox. Before his egregious dismissal from his job as chief prosecutor, Cox had been nothing less than thorough in teasing out the seedier back-story to the Watergate fiasco. Lurking among the darker corners of the Nixon Administration, Cox helped uncover financial shenanigans within the Nixon re-election campaign, as well as damning evidence of conspiracy and cover-up within the highest reaches of the White House. And, of course, it was Cox's unyielding demand that Nixon turn over secret tape recordings made in the Oval Office that led to his firing.

In hindsight, Cox's doggedness in pursuit of the truth now seems not only justified but downright commendable, considering the outcome. So why do supporters of the current President insist that similar probes are out of bounds and unpatriotic?

Is it such a reach to compare the investigation of Nixon's notorious slush fund to the ongoing questions over the Bush Administration's chronic back-channeling of contracts and tax-breaks to former oil and business cronies? Were the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up any less murky than the ever-unfolding story of the Administration's secret ramp-up to the war in Iraq? And, frankly, how different was Cox's demand for the White House tapes from the ongoing pleas by journalists and legislators for the Bush Administration to hand over similarly vital evidence? It is unsettling, to say the least, that Nixon's stonewalling is now perceived as a fatal flaw, and yet the current administration has demonstrated the same kind of stubborn secrecy when petitioned for any number of documents -- from pre-9/11 memos, to early revelations about the Abu Ghraib mess, to the still-undisclosed details of the Vice President's Energy Task Force.

(The latter, like Cox's petition for the Nixon tapes during Watergate, is now before the Supreme Court. Back in 1974, the Justices stood behind the public's right to know what their leaders were up to. Don't expect the same courtesy from this Court.)

No less compelling are the parallels between Sam Dash's role in Watergate, and those of the men and women who now seek to swing open the doors of the Oval Office. To be sure, it was Dash whose persistent interrogation of White House aide Alexander Butterfield exposed the existence of a secret taping system; but what Dash will be remembered best for was not so much what he did on the Watergate panel, but the character and integrity he displayed throughout. He was admired on both sides of the aisle for his fairness and candor -- and not only during Watergate. In 1994, Dash surprised Democrats by signing on as an ethics advisor to Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation of President Clinton, only to quit four years later when he determined that Starr's aggressive pursuit of impeachment wasn't the kind of impartial investigation he had in mind.

"As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict," Dash said at the time of his resignation. "This is an absolute mission with me."

At this moment, millions of Americans are on the same mission. Still rocked by the atrocities of September 11 -- and now embroiled in both combat abroad and political battles here at home -- the nation turns to its leader for answers. But time after time, President Bush has exhibited the same kind of contempt for public disclosure that got our 37th President into so much trouble three decades ago. Sam Dash wouldn't have stood for that. Neither should we.

I am not implying that the Bush Administration is guilty of Nixonesque abuse of power (not yet, at least); nor am I suggesting that if the President has engaged in misguiding American citizens, that his duplicity has reached the level of high crimes against our nation.

But the time has certainly come for President Bush to accept that fact that, like it or not, the country is now divided as painfully as it was during the Watergate era. And that it is this issue -- and not his re-election campaign -- that deserves his complete attention.

Bruce Kluger is on the board of contributors of USA Today. He also writes for National Public Radio and Parenting magazine.

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