Think again: Worse than Watergate?
In a new poll from Public Policy Polling, 74 percent of Republicans polled said they think the actions of the Obama administration during the crisis in Benghazi were worse than Watergate. The results, however, might be taken with a grain of salt as half of that 74 percent appear to have no idea whatsoever where—or even what—Benghazi is. According to the poll, “10% think it’s in Egypt, 9% in Iran, 6% in Cuba, 5% in Syria, 4% in Iraq, and 1% each in North Korea and Liberia with 4% not willing to venture a guess.”
While those folks review their old high school geography textbooks, they might also wish to reserve a little time to answer the question: What was Watergate?
One possible answer—an apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C., not far from the Kennedy Center—will not help much. Neither will an almost equally concise—but narrowly true—answer: the break-in that occurred at 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1972 at Democratic headquarters by a bunch of crooks hired by Richard Nixon’s cronies. Perhaps, given one of those definitions, the events related to Benghazi will turn out to be worse, though this remains an open question at best. But if we take the word “Watergate” to mean what nearly everyone has understood it to mean for the past four decades—the series of crimes discovered as a result of said break-in at the complex—then it becomes rather difficult to justify even mentioning the two in the same sentence.
One can find thousands of books on the topic—and tens of thousands of scholarly articles. But on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in last year, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—The Washington Post reporters who originally broke the story—outlined the main elements of the multiple scandals and crimes that led to President Nixon’s forced resignation. Space precludes a full recounting of their article, “40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought,” but among the lowlights were:
It’s been 40 years since Watergate, and members of the insider media are apparently allergic to all forms of historical knowledge, especially when it means putting contemporary “scandals” in the context of those in the past. What’s more, President Nixon’s partisans have been conducting a never-ending war in an attempt to minimize his crimes and those of his aides since the day of the original break-in. Among the most entertaining of these, if perhaps the most obvious, was former Nixon speechwriter and later powerful New York Times pundit William Safire’s efforts to attach a “gate” suffix to every minor morsel of malfeasance to occur in subsequent administrations beginning with “Koreagate,” “Lancegate,” “Billygate,” “Oilgate,” and perhaps least tastefully, “Waterquiddick.”
With the release of the Benghazi emails on Wednesday, it is clear that whatever the problems may have been regarding the administration’s response before or after the attack on the embassy, the notion that any of it could have been “worse than Watergate” is, to put it politely, difficult to countenance. And yet, judging by recent poll results, and stoked by malevolent media hysteria, we are likely to endure this comparison in the coming months, or even years.
Were Safire alive today, he might be tempted to declare victory.
This article was published by the Center for American Progress.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.