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.