The Book of Humpty Dumpty

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment


All the President’s Men (Bernstein, Carl, and Woodward, Bob)

This book describes the episode in American history that took a harmless four-letter word and turned it into a damning suffix that has over time become so powerful that it can be made to fit any situation; the act of appending it to another word confers instant notoriety on the people involved. If not for Watergate, the world would not have heard of Memogate, Fajitagate, Shilpagate, Porngate, Weinergate, Nipplegate, or indeed, the scams concerning later US presidents, Contragate and Monicagate. (The events themselves would have taken place, you understand – they just wouldn’t have been known by those names) Many of the more trivial –gate coinages are attributed to William Safire, who had once been Nixon’s speechwriter; there is a school of thought that suggests that he coined them in order to trivialize the original crime, in order to diminish Nixon’s guilt by association with inconsequential peccadillos and minor felonies. Was he successful? I don’t know – did Seinfeld rehabilitate Hitler by inventing the Soup Nazi? More importantly, I wonder why this allegation has not yet been dubbed Safiregate. Or Gategate.

Unhatch This (Pheasant eggshells, courtesy Trish Steel, Wikimedia Commons)

Never mind. My main objective in reading this book four decades after the tumultuous events of 1972-74 was to understand exactly why Watergate was such a big deal. It certainly wasn’t the first time politicians behaved badly during election campaigns. As I recently read, on a single eventful night during the 1944 Democratic vice-presidential nominations, John C Culver and John Hyde note in their book, ‘American Dreamer’, “...ambassadorships were offered. Postmaster positions were handed out. Cold cash changed hands”. For generations, political bosses have stuffed ballot boxes, manipulated the truth, redrawn political maps, started wars, muzzled the press, used mafia connections, decided winners and losers. So why the big fuss? Was it because of the involvement of the Washington Post in breaking the story? But then, investigative journalism had been around for ages, as well – Herbert Swope’s work on the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 was pioneering, but Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly’s heroic investigation of McCarthyism and Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre were more recent in popular memory.

No – I suppose Watergate was a landmark only because it was the first time a sitting President and his close staff were implicated in a scandal (Not that presidents hadn’t been involved in scandals before, you understand – just that they hadn’t been implicated while they were in office). The book documents the utter shock and disillusionment of many people– reporters, editors, lawyers, FBI agents, secretaries, ordinary people – at the revelations. This speaks of a naivety that I, in turn, find shocking. Presidents are human beings too, and as such, as susceptible to corruption as anyone else. By the 1970s, Americans had dealt with venal and evil governments around the world. Occasionally they had even colluded with and supported these men with cash, arms and covert ops. That the American public thought it was condonable in other countries but shocking and barely possible at home is…interesting.

I also think the naivety extends, in a curious way, to the President’s coterie as well. This consisted of powerful men who got to know – and pretty soon at that – the names and identities of the reporters behind the story. But other than serving them with subpoenas and possibly tapping their phones, no bodily harm was threatened or perpetrated. I can think of a dozen ways in which their silence could have been purchased or otherwise guaranteed: none of the more extreme ones seem even to have been tried. There are still other ways in which muck may be raked on individuals and newspapers discredited in a hurry, but while the White House made several public statements against the Washington Post, it didn’t go the whole distance. Full credit to them for this, of course – and for something else as well. Despite the entire investigation revolving around the money trail, nowhere in the sordid tale was there any hint of personal venality on part of the President or any of his men – the secret cash stash was used by them to pay off shady ex-CIA operatives and burglars, but none of it seems to have made its way into their own pockets. In most parts of the world, this would certainly not have been the case.

Things have changed since Watergate. This naivety – on both sides – is a thing of the past. The respect commanded by the President’s office is vastly diminished – thanks to Watergate, but with important contributions by Ronald Reagan’s gaffes, Bill Clinton’s sexcapades, and much of what George W Bush said or did. The Vice Presidency has been similarly damaged by Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney. You cannot find a man ridiculous (the former), or suspect him of being a criminal (the latter), while respecting his office. In the run up to the 2004 elections, South Park even talked of a presidential election in the most irreverent terms possible: as a decision between a ‘giant douche’ and a ‘turd sandwich’. (Now that would have shocked 1972 America more than Watergate did)

Meanwhile, governments have been learning, too. Recently, Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, USA Today journalists who wrote about the Pentagon’s propaganda wars, have been subjected to a searing dirty tricks campaign, had their credibility, professional competence and even patriotism called to question – not directly by the government, mind you, but by anonymous proxies and lobbying groups whose funding cannot be traced back easily. Even if it were traced back, hypothetically to the President himself, I do not see the American people getting shocked, or baying for a indictment or impeachment.

Watergate was a historical milestone alright. It was the last time the public, the President and the press reacted in a particular way. It can never happen again. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. You can lose your innocence only once.

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