Watergate turns 50 this June but, so far, the recent release of a new book about the scandal remains the sole representative of the anniversary’s festivities.
Books have always been the means by which this event has been celebrated. The scandal has been well-represented in the world of publishing ever since the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate Office Building that involved the administration of President Richard Nixon, whose resignation two years later was the culmination of extensive investigative reporting and ongoing public hearings.
In fact, books on the subject span everything from transcripts of White House conversations to memoirs by many of the dramatis personae involved to All the President’s Men and The Final Days, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s accounts of their findings covering the event for the Washington Post.
But, despite its print celebrity over the past half-century, Watergate has otherwise drifted out of the national consciousness to become a semi-recognizable name from the past, more of a high-school lesson in U.S. History than an era-defining moment.
Yet in the time it has taken the event to lose its effervescence, it has become a flawed lesson, not a sermon on morality but a cautionary tale on the necessity of a foolproof plan. After all, the scandal did not derive from the break-in but from the burglars being caught.
It seems foolproof plans were not a priority in the actions and cover-up of Watergate. As Garrett M. Graff notes in his book Watergate: A New History, published in February and offering a fresh perspective on the proceedings, “time would make clear…[that] labeling it all a ‘criminal conspiracy’ implies a level of forethought, planning and precise execution that isn’t actually evident at any stage of the debacle.”
Attempts to install electronic surveillance in the DNC campaign headquarters included two failed efforts of a “Keystone Kops nature,” as Graff describes them, before the bugs were successfully planted and some office documents photographed. When the surveillance equipment proved a failure, another attempt was undertaken. Graff reports that this fourth and last try, which demanded “the burglary team prioritize photographing every document they could find,” was put into play June 17, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Analyzing what comprises Watergate from a 21st century vantage point manages to unravel many, if not all, of its complexities, and that may be the best we can hope for, given that most of the principal players are no longer with us. As Graff points out, the scandal “represents much more than an individual moment, decision, event or target. It has so many parts that it has no single motive or story to tell, no single thread that makes all the pieces come together…”
To say Watergate was a game-changer is an understatement. The immediately noticeable result of its impact at the time could be seen in increased enrollments in journalism programs, with each student gearing up to be a prospective Woodward or Bernstein and to make a difference by reporting on nation- or world-changing events. That dream, along with journalism programs, has dissipated during this century, but the political ramifications resulting from Watergate are still in play.
Graff notes that Watergate is “in many ways, the dividing line between ‘old’ Washington and ‘new,’ capturing a sea change in power, institutional dynamics and politics. Watergate stands simultaneously as the last event of an old era…and the introduction of a new era of political action…”
For all its notoriety, Watergate remains largely unnoticed this year by the media as its latest milestone approaches. Yet, it’s still with us, lingering, reminding us of what might have been and what might still be, and ready with a wink and a nod should anyone notice.