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:
- President Nixon personally approved a plan that authorized the CIA, FBI, and military-intelligence units to intensify electronic surveillance of individuals identified as “domestic security threats.” It also allowed the interception of mail, and unauthorized break-ins by government agents of the homes of law-abiding citizens.
- The Nixon “Plumbers” unit was also unleashed against perceived adversaries of the administration in an ultimately criminal fashion. Among its actions was the break-in into the headquarters of former RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. “You can’t drop it, Bob,” Nixon instructed top aide Bob Haldeman. “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?” In addition, in 1969, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor—and later secretary of state—demanded that the FBI spy on 17 journalists and White House aides without court approval.
- President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell approved a $250,000 criminal plan offered by G. Gordon Liddy to spy on and sabotage Democratic candidates during the 1972 election using wiretaps and burglaries, with “at least 50 operatives … involved in the espionage and sabotage.” The chauffeur of then-leading Democratic presidential contender, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, received $1,000 a month to spy on the candidate and to steal campaign documents for President Nixon’s campaign staff. In a memo to Haldeman and Mitchell dated April 12, 1972, While House aide—and later conservative commentator—Pat Buchanan explained, “Our primary objective, to prevent Senator Muskie from sweeping the early primaries, locking up the convention in April, and uniting the Democratic Party behind him for the fall, has been achieved.” President Nixon also instructed his aides to order the IRS to investigate the tax returns of all potential Democratic presidential candidates.
- President Nixon approved and directed a criminal conspiracy to try to hide his own role and that of his aides in all of the above. Six days after the Watergate break-in, Haldeman informed the president that Mitchell had suggested that the CIA be used to demand that any investigations be stopped lest they threaten “national security.” President Nixon approved it and instructed Haldeman to tell then-CIA Director Richard Helms to “Play it tough.” The president also instructed his aides to buy the silence of the criminals working for him. “They have to be paid,” he said. “That’s all there is to that.”
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.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.