Watergate

Where Historians Disagree - Watergate

More than three decades after Watergate—one of the most famous political scandals in American history—historians and others continue to argue about its causes and significance. Their interpretations fall into several broad categories.

One argument emphasizes the evolution of the institution of the presidency over time and sees Watergate as the result of a much larger pattern of presidential usurpations of power that stretched back at least several decades. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. helped develop this argument in his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency, which argues that ever since World War II, Americans have believed that the nation was in a state of permanent crisis, threatened from abroad by the menace of communism, threatened from within by the danger of insufficient will. The belief of a succession of presidents in the urgency of this crisis, and in their duty to take whatever measures might be necessary to combat it, led them gradually to usurp more and more power from Congress, from the courts, and from the public. Initially, this expansion of presidential power came in the realm of international affairs: covert and at times illegal activities overseas.

But in the postwar world, domestic politics began to seem inseparable from international politics. Gradually, presidents began to look for ways to circumvent constraints in domestic matters as well. Nixon's actions in the Watergate crisis were, in other words, a culmination of this long and steady expansion of covert presidential power. Jonathan Schell, in The Time of Illusion (1975), offers a variation of this argument, tying the crisis of the presidency to the pressure that nuclear weapons place on presidents to protect the nation's—and their own—"credibility." Other commentators (but few serious historical studies) go even further and argue that what happened to produce the Watergate scandals was not substantively different from the normal patterns of presidential behavior, that Nixon simply got caught where others had not, and that a long-standing liberal hostility toward Nixon ensured that he would pay a higher price for his behavior than other presidents would.

A second explanation of Watergate emphasizes the difficult social and political environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nixon entered office, according to this view, facing an unprecedentedly radical opposition that would stop at nothing to discredit the war and destroy his authority. He found himself, therefore, drawn into taking similarly desperate measures of his own to defend himself from these extraordinary challenges. Nixon made this argument in his own 1975 memoirs:

It was this epidemic of unprecedented domestic terrorism that prompted our efforts to discover the best means by which to deal with this new phenomenon of highly organized and highly skilled revolutionaries dedicated to the violent destruction of our democratic system.

The historian Herbert Parmet echoes parts of this argument in Richard Nixon and His America (1990). Stephen Ambrose offers a more muted version of the same view in Richard Nixon (1989).

Most of those who have written about Watergate, however, search for the explanation not in institutional or social forces, but in the personalities of the people involved and, most notably, in the personality of Richard Nixon. Even many of those who have developed structural explanations

(Schlesinger, Schell, and Ambrose, for example) return eventually to Nixon himself as the most important explanation for Watergate. Others begin there, perhaps most notably Stanley I. Kutler, in The Wars of Watergate (1990) and, later, Abuse of Power (1997), in which he presents extensive excerpts from conversations about Watergate taped in the Nixon White House. Kutler emphasizes Nixon's lifelong resort to vicious political tactics and his long-standing belief that he was a special target of unscrupulous enemies and had to "get" them before they got him. Watergate was rooted, Kutler argues, "in the personality and history of Nixon himself." A "corrosive hatred," he claims, "decisively shaped Nixon's own behavior, his career, and eventually his historical standing."

 

 

http://www.simonsays.com/content/content.cfm?sid=33&pid=404494&agid=2 - All the President's Men, Chapter 1

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0310.greenberg.html - "Nabobs Revisited," David Greenberg

 

 
1
Thanks in part to the 1976 film version, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men remains one of the most widely read books on Watergate. Read Chapter 1 of the book. How does it compare to traditional works of history? Should a work of journalism be held to different standards than a work of history? What is historian David Greenberg's argument about Woodward and Bernstein, and the Watergate-era Washington press corps more generally? Do you find him persuasive?
  
 
 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/780 - "The Exile" (Review of Kutler), Russell Baker

http://slate.msn.com/id/3028/ - "The Unraveling" (Review of Kutler), Rick Perlstein

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white_house/july-dec97/nixon_11-26.html - The Nixon Tapes (PBS Chat with Kutler)

http://www.fas.org/sgp/congress/2002/041102kutler.html - "Bush's Secrecy Fetish," Stanley I. Kutler

 

 
2
Read the reviews and articles above on Stanley Kutler's book Abuse of Power. What is his argument about the origins of Watergate? Do you agree? What part do the Nixon tapes play in Kutler's interpretation? As such, do you agree or disagree with his argument in "Bush's Secrecy Fetish"?