Watergate, reconsidered

Joel Bellman, formerly an award-winning radio reporter and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, is a longtime journalism instructor for UCLA Extension and the communications deputy for county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He submitted this piece as an individual.

Today, along with other dads, I'm celebrating Father's Day with my two sons. We are toasting the memory of my father, Samuel, who passed away almost three years ago, and whose politics, literary passions, and unbridled enthusiasm for popular culture - high and low - helped shape me.

And falling on June 17, this Father's Day we are also toasting someone else, one of those unsung heroes whose quiet competence in a modest job happened to change the course of modern history: Frank Wills, the overnight security guard at the Watergate Hotel who 40 years ago today spotted that persistent piece of Scotch tape on an office door. That was only the first piece of tape that eventually took down the administration of President Richard M. Nixon and sent many of his top aides to federal prison.

For journalists, anniversaries are always a handy excuse to revisit the past for another lazy meander down memory lane. Yet it's virtually impossible to convey to my sons' generation how momentous the Watergate scandal really was. It has redefined American politics for more than a generation, disrupting the natural presidential succession and redirecting the course of domestic and foreign policy as profoundly as the asteroid that smashed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago extinguished most life on earth. Politically speaking, Watergate was our catastrophic extinction event: it shattered trust in elected officials, destroyed confidence in government, and deeply undermined the fundamental legitimacy of a public sector empowered to levy taxes and undertake projects or activities on behalf of, or deliver vital services to, the general public.

Thanks to Richard Nixon's criminal abuse of his office and attempted usurpation of constitutional authority, Watergate spawned a corrosive and pervasive cynicism that still infects today's body politic like a lethal virus.

The tax revolt? Term limits? Citizen reapportionment commissions? The never-ending cycle of campaign and election "reform"? Government by initiative? Like them or not - and I don't - I would argue that it all started with Watergate. That scandal is surely the ultimate aversion therapy for anybody with naive and idealistic notions of politics as a noble career where principled leaders aspire to serve their country with honesty and dedication.

But even those dark and troubled times had their popular heroes, and all the self-serving myth-makers of the journalism world cannot diminish the indispensable role played by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and later by many others, and the superlative reporting achievements that succeeded in calling the Nixon administration to account for its misdeeds. I'm not exaggerating when I say that American democracy, the rule of law, and our constitutional freedoms hung in the balance - and were ultimately rescued by the American press and the pressure they brought to bear on other institutions such as Congress and the courts which ultimately checked the power of a runaway executive branch.

Watergate was not only one of the most dramatic, compelling and memorable political tutorials any generation could possibly experience: it was also the high-water mark for American journalism.

In many respects, it's been an accelerating downhill skid ever since. Woodward and Bernstein embarked on the Watergate saga as a pair of young and inexperienced metro reporters, and emerged two years later as bona fide superstars idolized by their colleagues and canonized - even deified - by Hollywood. If not for them, investigative journalism as we know it today would not exist.

But if it didn't, in some ways we might be a lot better informed about what's going on in our communities, and throughout the world.

Call it the Woodstein paradox. If a couple of brave reporters and their courageous news organization can uncover a monstrous criminal conspiracy in our political system and successfully drive the rascals out of the highest elective office in the land, rescuing democracy and proving The System works, then why - 40 years later - is The System more paralyzed, polarized, sclerotic and delegitimized by the electorate across the ideological spectrum?

Rather than restoring public confidence, the aftermath of the Watergate scandal has seen it demolished. After Woodstein, what fresh-faced journalistic aspirant wouldn't want to become an investigative reporter? All you needed was enough attitude, aggressiveness, and a simple credo: "follow the money."

Reality is a little more nuanced than a pop-culture cartoon. When I transitioned into politics more than 20 years ago, after nearly a decade in print and broadcast journalism, I thought I was a smart and savvy guy.

I got my comeuppance in a hurry.

Not a single issue was what it initially seemed - everything had layers of policy implications, every player part of a vast web of obscure but often defining relationships, every move had reverberating consequences, every stray remark threatened new peril should it be misquoted or misconstrued. Even truthful comments accurately reported afforded no protection: as Michael Kinsley cracked, in politics a gaffe is when somebody accidentally tells the truth.

True heroes and villains are rare, despite the play-acting and atmospherics. Motives are murky, policy outcomes unclear. Much is not what it seems, not because of deception, but because of complexity: politics is, after all, nothing more than individual human behavior, the good, the bad and the ugly, played out on a vastly larger stage with a cast of thousands.

To really understand and explain it, reporters should be embedded in their beats, where they can cultivate sources, develop relationships, learn the routines, know what to look for and who to watch out for. They need to attend all those boring meetings and see firsthand what goes on, gain the confidence of the bureaucrats who control access and information, work the political staffs.

Too often, investigative project teams are little more than a strike force, swooping in to attack a specific and isolated issue, and then, like The Lone Ranger - "Come, Tonto, our work is finished here" - gallop off into the sunset, never to be seen again. It can be exciting, glamorous, award-winning, and lucrative - and ultimately entirely pointless and inconsequential. It's been said that when you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And when you're an "investigative reporter," everything looks like a criminal conspiracy.

Worst of all, as one news organization after another guts its basic reporting staff and cuts back or eliminates entirely beats and bureaus, they continue to tout their high-profile, advertiser and web-view driven "investigative" units. Even as news outlets are patronizing their audiences for being such sophisticated insiders, the poor chumps are growing more ignorant about and irrelevant to a political process that is leaving them behind.

I don't deny there are occasionally genuine conspiracies, and the press can and does play a salutary role in helping to expose them. Iran-Contra, Enron, the Madoff investment scam, the BCCI money-laundering scheme, and closer to home, the City of Bell and criminal mismanagement of the LA Memorial Coliseum. In none of these, however, did the press play the leading role - very often they were chasing work done by legislative or prosecutorial investigators, and reporting the leaked findings later.

Watergate was in many ways truly sui generis - one of a kind. Though we now know that Woodstein's Deep Throat source was the #2 guy in the FBI, pointing them in the right direction, they deserve full bragging rights for the fearless enterprise reporting they did.
But 40 years after Watergate - the epic scandal that kindled my interest in politics and fired my determination to become a journalist - I have gained much more respect for the mostly honest and dedicated people working in government, the vast majority of whom are not crooks, and increasingly soured on a sensation-seeking press corps and the shallow, inattentive readers, viewers and listeners it too often serves so badly.

What would my father say to all this? I don't know - but sometimes, Dad, I almost think that maybe it's better you're not around to see it.


More by Joel Bellman:
You can call him Al
Ed Edelman and his sense of decency
The Scapegoat *
My back pages
Watergate, reconsidered
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