The Washington Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for demonstrating yet again the immense value of an independent press to a functioning democracy salad: The reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post earned individual glory for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein while unveiling to the public a presidency that was slouching toward corporate-style authoritarianism.
The Washington Post was an easy choice for the Pulitzer award; if the selection was not unanimous it should have been. Only a few newspapers are entitled to bask in the praise that has focused on the Post, but the entire press must feel a sense of gratitude that a handful of papers managed, under difficult circumstances, to vindicate the role of the fourth estate in the American system.
But now the press faces a critical test. Spot checks and random interviews, conducted across the country, make it clear that most Americans fail to grasp the significance of Watergate. This conclusion is in no wise negated by the fact that public concern is widespread or that a majority, in certain polls, feel that the President knew of the cover-up or that 30 percent do not shy away from the dread word “impeachment.” Basically what these attitudes reflect is a general dislike and distrust of the President which existed before the break-in. That section of the public is merely confirmed in its doubts by the President’s carefully limited denials. When, for example, he denies participation in the cover-up but not knowledge of it, the misgivings about him are strongly re-enforced. But the polls and interviews reveal a failure on the part of even the doubters to sense the full meaning of Watergate.
Instead of clarifying the issues the press has unwittingly confused them by rehashing former Presidential scandals. None of them–whether under Grant, Harding, Truman or Eisenhower–belong in the same category as Watergate. Watergate has nothing to do with vicuna coats, hotel bills or deep freezers. The bagmen for CREEP did not make off with any of the huge loot; no one has charged that Mitchell, Stans or Kalmbach pocketed any $100 bills. True, legislative favors were no doubt dangled in front of possible contributors, but the public would view such solicitation as standard practice; they would not see it as “corruption,” though it is probably the worst form. In any case, Watergate is not a party scandal; the Republican Party is not tainted by it. So past Presidential scandals throw little light on its meaning.
Watergate marks a climax in a constitutional crisis that has been in the making throughout the cold-war years. There were still earlier precedents, but the nature of “cold war” required a vast augmentation of Presidential power–for example, the power to wage war without a formal declaration by the Congress. It also superimposed an extra-constitutional apparatus on the original design. Cold war involves subversion, propaganda, espionage, assassination (if necessary), bribery and a wide variety of clandestine operations. Successive administrations were committed to the proposition that revolutionary regimes had to be suppressed, if possible. With the onset of the cold war, the CIA was established–the year after Richard Nixon, best known of all “anti-Communist” politicians, was first elected to Congress. And in 1950 a state of emergency was proclaimed which is still in effect. It is not surprising that the Watergate plotters should have turned to the CIA– with the support of a top White House aide–for assistance that was promptly forthcoming. Nor is it surprising that the condottieri that Mr. Nixon assembled at the White House should have tried, initially, to place the blame for Watergate on the CIA.
Presidential war-making, based on powers acquired by default of Congress, practiced over a period of years, is in no small measure responsible for the irresponsible delegation of power which is part of the meaning of Watergate. It is one thing when the President directly exercises the awesome powers of his office, but when this power begins to be exercised by a palace guard of faceless aides responsible only to the President, then constitutional government is in danger of being subverted.
Even those who should know better–agency heads and members of Congress–react to these surrogates as they would to the President. Worse, such an unconstitutional delegation of power creates a dangerous ambiguity. Is this the President’s act? Does he know about it? As George Reedy pointed out in The Nation of January 1 (“White House Aides: Faceless Agents of Power”) before the major Watergate disclosures: “The President can repudiate an erring staffer, and the nature of the White House is such that the staffer will probably accept the repudiation quietly, even when the President is actually responsible. But that does not dispel the suspicion that will arise even when the President is guiltless.”
The meaning of Watergate, in brief, is that we have been slouching toward an authoritarian, corporate-style state–“a managerial Presidency”–for a long time, and a sustained national effort will be required if the trend is to be reversed. “Cleansing” the White House is not enough. Convicting, the guilty will not suffice; nor will the substitution of able replacements for those removed from the White House staff. The agenda of corrective measures is long: tough new controls on campaign spending, a strengthening of party responsibility, restoration of Congressional authority and reform of its procedures, return to Cabinet government, a revival of the rule of law, lopping off the unconstitutional powers now exercised by the President, and dismantling cold-war mechanisms such as the CIA. (One of “America’s most distinguished ex-agents” is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying: “The old days of spies and clandestine intelligence are really gone.”) But if these issues are to be dealt with, the press must drive home the meaning of Watergate. Further disclosures are important but so is the significance of what has already been disclosed. It would be ironic if the press which has brought Watergate to public attention should permit the meaning of the crime to be lost in a storm of headlines.