Watergate: Our Long National Nightmare
To keep things real, Watergate was and is illuminating as just another battle as the ambitious and the avaricious amongst us contended for power. That is, it was an all-too-typical event of the kind that characterizes American politics. Watergate illuminated and illuminates what we’ve become or what we’ve been.
Because it was so illuminating of what we are, and because so illuminated we couldn’t help but be anxious over what we are, it was imperative to reduce Watergate to Richard Nixon. That is, as President Ford said immediately after Nixon resigned the presidency, “our long national nightmare is over,” meaning that our nightmare didn’t have roots in our political order but only in the person of Richard Nixon. Once Nixon was gone, removed from power, our “nightmare” was over and we could, apparently, sleep peacefully once again.
In American politics, it’s always the “bad guys” who are to blame. So, to deal with Watergate, we only had to deal with Richard Nixon; we didn’t have to deal with the presidency itself as a potential source of our troubles. Moral failings explain our troubles, not the defects of our political order. We view the world moralistically, not politically, and so we always blame presidents but never the presidency. Our moralism blinds us to the political roots of our troubles.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin gave, or had read, a speech in which he recommended not paying presidents. He did so because he thought that an office that appealed to the ambitiously avaricious or the avariciously ambitious was an office that would prove to be fatal to decent government. Unlike Hamilton, Franklin apparently did not subscribe to the thought that “the love of fame [was] the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” The love of fame, which is a pursuit of a kind of immortality, especially when rewarded materially, would lead to constant battles for power. So, Franklin argued, “the peaceful” would not seek office and civil peace would not prevail. Politics would be characterized by endless battles for power, characterized by constant calumny, to the detriment of the peace and decency of society.
After examining the Watergate scandal for some time, it seems to me that Franklin had it exactly right. There were no “good guys,” although there were more than a few “bad guys,” if by bad is meant people ambitiously and greedily seeking power or to displace those who had acquired it. But then Watergate was hardly a unique event in American politics. The same phenomenon is visible repeatedly in our political drama, as mention of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the Clarence Thomas and Bret Kavanaugh confirmation hearings will attest. And the reason these phenomena repeatedly arise is because our political institutions are defective, because they appeal to the ambitious and the avaricious and reward them when these vices bring them victory. The roots of our troubles are political and, as a result, our nightmares didn’t end with Nixon, nor will they end with the demise of Donald Trump.