Watergate’s Lessons, Washed Away
[Watergate] was a true constitutional crisis. The abuse of presidential power was staggering, from the soliciting of illegal corporate campaign contributions used for hush money and delivered by bagmen, to the illicit actions of the aforementioned plumbers — an operation, by the way, that traced its roots all the way back to the early months of Nixon’s first term. Combined with the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam — including the secret bombing of Cambodia and the violent squelching of antiwar protest — Watergate shook the public’s confidence in government as it hadn’t been since the bleakest days of secession and the Civil War.
But as several participants at the [Lessons of Watergate] conference noted, the nation and its institutions did something about it. Committees in both the Senate and House, members of both parties cooperating with one another (!), conducted thorough investigations. In a more competitive, less consolidated news environment, a free press went on the attack (once the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post, Sy Hersh at The New York Times, Jack Nelson at the Los Angeles Times and others awoke a moribund White House press corps).
And the courts worked, from John Sirica, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who cracked down on the Watergate burglars and demanded the White House turn over those audiotapes, to the highest court in the land. As Fred Wertheimer of the reform group Democracy 21 remarked at the conference, “The Supreme Court understood that citizens had a constitutional right to protect their democracy from corruption.”
People went to jail, lots of them — even the former attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell. Think about that. Many of them did hard time. Today, we couldn’t even get miscreant bankers to resign in exchange for their billions in bailouts, much less prosecute them for criminal behavior.
The briefly restored public trust that followed Nixon’s departure started turning back to the cynicism that endures today almost immediately, when his successor Gerald Ford absolved Nixon of his sins with a full presidential pardon. In the years that followed, the erosion has continued. The bagmen have become the banks and Wall Street. Gridlock and intolerance have replaced bipartisanship. The efforts at campaign finance reform that followed Watergate – crushed by Citizens United and other court rulings — have dwindled to the point where, as conference panelist Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center observed, we are “shockingly close again to no contribution limits.” And with 9/11 and the war on terror, including ongoing drone attacks and threats to civil liberties, Morton Halperin noted, “The public is once again accepting an imperial presidency.”
[T]he Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable. Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track. Let’s hope not.
We’ve already had such scandals, of course, and nothing has come of them. The first subsequent scandal was Iran-Contra. Imagine this, if you will, remembering that we’re talking about reality and not some goofy movie script:
The President of the United States is suffering from officially undiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease. The symptoms are recognized by those around him, but they don’t know what’s causing them. The surgeons who operate on the President after he’s had a fall from a horse recognize the characteristic plaque and tangles of a brain degenerating from Alzheimer’s; they gossip about it; but they make no official report.
By this time Congress has enacted a law forbidding the U.S. government to provide aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, rebels trying to unseat the legal government of their country (which happens at the time to be communist). The President hates communists, and he wants to provide such aid, laws be damned. He also wants to recover 7 U.S. hostages now being held by Iran. Yeah. That Iran. The Iran which even at the time is a U.S. enemy, subject to sanctions the U.S. is imposing. He also wants to help Israel. Yeah. That Israel. The nation which is a sworn enemy of Iran.
Got the picture? The President suffers from Alzheimer’s, so he’s fading (except for the moments when he’s back “on stage,” so to speak). His wishes are clear, however. So a kind of shadow government fills the power vacuum. A key player is the NSC’s Colonel Oliver North. What these people arrange is to provide weapons to Israel, some of which Israel will sell to Iran, at a mark-up. In return for the arms, Iran will release the hostages. At least part of the mark-up profit will be returned to the U.S. The U.S. will then spend the cash helping the Contras. If in the process the U.S. helps drug cartels smuggling cocaine back to the U.S. on return flights? What the hey! There’s always “collateral damage,” right?
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Nerdish readers will remember T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, and/or its movie version. The key line in this context is uttered by King Henry II, regarding his former? still? friend Thomas a Beckett, then serving as Archbishop of Canterbury: ”Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” He’s overheard by vassals, who go to the cathedral and do indeed rid him of the priest — by murdering him. Is that what the King wanted? Is that what he explicitly asked for? subconsciously? Was he pleased by the murder? Ambiguous and, ultimately, unknowable.*
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This outrage to law, Constitution, ethics, and morality comes to light. A number of persons are convicted; some have the convictions reversed on appeal; and some go to prison. But the combination of “plausible deniability” and a whole lot of late-night paper shredding by Oliver North to get off scot free. No impeachment.
Catch the key phrase in North’s testimony below: “I do not recall.” The lie cannot be disproved, because North shredded the evidence.
Apparently it worked. NYT:
GERHARD A. GESELL, the unpredictable 79-year-old Federal District Judge who presided over the Iran-contra trial of Oliver L. North, saved a final surprise for last by punishing Mr. North for his crimes with a sentence that included a fine, community service and probation, but no prison term.
Mr. North’s admirers and his detractors had expected much harsher treatment, considering Judge Gesell’s oft-spoken respect for adherence to the law, the seriousness of the charges and a recommendation by the independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, that Mr. North serve time in jail. In addition, Judge Gesell had shown no reluctance to send highly placed Government officials to prison when he presided over several Watergate-related trials in the mid-1970′s.
North is now host of a successful hate-talk radio show, and a hero to the far right.
Then there was the Bush/Cheney horror. Violate international law by taking the nation into an unnecessary war on the basis of deliberate lies; trick Congress into approving the so-called “Patriot” Act, thus hugely increasing the size of government and creating a police state; “out” a clandestine CIA officer; violate both domestic and international law by horribly torturing suspects (many of whom have proved to be totally innocent, simply sold out for bounty money); initiate “rendition” run secret, “dark” prisons; violate FISA; create a special prison to hold human beings without charge or trial or habeas corpus or — in many cases — access to counsel)… etc. beyond calculating.
And now Obama. In short, Obama has continued many Bush outrages while dropping others. And he’s added vast expansion of the drone program; claiming the right to assassinate American citizens on his own “imperial executive” authority (and acting on that claim); and, perhaps most destructive of all, the crushing of government whistleblowers.
Via The Washington Post:
The Obama administration, which promised during its transition to power that it would enhance “whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers,” has been more prone than any administration in history in trying to silence and prosecute federal workers.
The Espionage Act, enacted back in 1917 to punish those who gave aid to our enemies, was used three times in all the prior administrations to bring cases against government officials accused of providing classified information to the media. It has been used six times since the current president took office.
Oh! Wait! There really was an impeachment, wasn’t there. President Clinton was impeached! Why was that? What violations of national, international, and Constitutional law more egregious than Reagan’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s could he possibly have committed?
Of course. I remember now. He lied about having had a blow job in a side office at the White House. Presiding over the trial was Speaker Newt Gingrich — who was at the time himself getting blow jobs from one of his own employees in his own Congressional office. Remember this?
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The moral of this entire post? Our nation is fucked. And this spirit crushing violation has nothing to do with lusts for the flesh. It’s about hubris, manipulation by advisors, and lust for power. Did I mention hubris?
The easiest person for a greedy conman to rob is a person who is herself or himself equally as guilty. The easiest person for a hubristic leader to corrupt is one who wants to be kept safe. Or, alternatively, one who shares the hubris: “I’ll cede my freedom and independence and even moral integrity to you, as captain — as long as you can convince me you can make ours the most powerful team (nation) of all. You let me do an end zone dance and give the finger to the world? You know, like chanting “U.S.A.” after the assassination of Bin Laden? I’ll be content.
Yeah, yeah. I admit it. If you’re the wrong color or the wrong sex or the wrong sexual orientation or the wrong political party… Well, the honeymoon will be spoiled. But if you’re right on all that? If you’re praised by Republican TV News and hate talk radio? I’ll bow and wash your feet and kiss your ring or … you get the point.
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* The play actually focus on Thomas a Beckett rather than Henry. And Thomas’s best line is this: “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”