Historical amnesia long ago leached away the meaning of Watergate for most Americans. With the revelation that former FBI official Mark Felt was the secret Washington Post source later known as "Deep Throat," an opportunity arises to examine the criminality that endangered the Constitution under the Nixon presidency and the role of the press in exposing that crisis -- as well as the continuing audacity of the Nixonian criminals, their enablers and their apologists in attempting to rewrite history.
Far beyond a "third-rate burglary" of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, Watergate came to stand for the wide-ranging gangsterism of the Nixon regime. At the bottom were fascist thugs like G. Gordon Liddy, who plotted the black-bag jobs, warrantless wiretaps, illegal spying and campaign dirty tricks, all in the cause of reelecting the president in 1972. In the middle were the Nixon operation's white-collar goons, those lawyers and bureaucrats who collected bundles of cash from corrupt corporations and then handed out the money for secret campaign slush funds and hush-money payoffs. And at the top sat Tricky Dick, along with his White House palace guard and his corrupted appointees at the Justice Department, the CIA and the FBI.
By the time Nixon was forced to resign or face impeachment in 1974, the great majority of citizens understood that this president and his mafia had perverted the electoral process, the law enforcement system and government itself in a manner the nation had not seen before. The breadth of the coverup conspiracy, which reached into the highest ranks of Washington's intelligence and law enforcement authorities, including then-FBI director Patrick Gray, helps explain why Felt decided that he should leak the information he had to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.
It is certainly true, as Felt's critics now complain, that Nixon had passed him over in favor of Gray when appointing the latter to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director. Felt's motives may not have been pure, but many anonymous sources and whistleblowers have personal motives. It is also true that Felt was deeply troubled by the Nixon White House efforts to compromise the FBI investigation of Watergate, and that his choices, unless he decided to resign in protest, were limited. There was no trustworthy figure among the Nixon loyalists in the White House. His own boss, Gray, and then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst were implicated in the coverup plot, too. And the Republicans in Congress, at that point, were still behind Nixon despite growing evidence of the president's guilt.
In Watergate, Felt was neither a hero nor a villain. He was a source.
There is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Deep Throat that derives from the same mythology that lionizes the Post, Woodward and his former partner, Carl Bernstein. Without diminishing in any way the courage and enterprise they displayed, the truth is that their role in bringing down the Nixon gang has been exaggerated (in part because of "All the President's Men," the wonderful movie based on the reporters' book). Actually, the police, prosecutors, FBI agents and congressional investigators uncovered the key elements of the original crimes with little assistance from the press. But with Felt's guidance, Woodward and Bernstein played a critical role in keeping the story alive, maintaining pressure on the White House and alerting official Washington to the crimes being perpetrated in its midst. For that they still deserve our gratitude -- as do many others who played less celebrated but equally significant parts in the constitutional drama.
If the Post is now indulging in nostalgia and self-congratulation, that excess may only serve to remind us how little Washington's dominant daily -- which trumpeted the phony Whitewater scandals and buried its own stories debunking the case for war against Iraq -- now resembles the plucky paper that battled Nixon.
Of course, the Post currently operates in a very different political and media climate. The predominance of right-wing voices today represents a kind of vengeance for Nixon, who initiated the conservative crusade against the "liberal media" for both ideological and selfish reasons. (He once tried to persuade his ardent supporter, rightist billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, to buy the Post from the Graham family.) And in the echo chambers of the right and on talk radio and cable television, the attempts to rewrite the sordid history of the Nixon regime will never cease.
The loudest barking and snarling emanates from the likes of Liddy, who served time for betraying his country and has since become a successful talk show host. It is a measure of morality among those who call themselves conservatives that a fascistic nutcase like Liddy became a movement icon (even after instructing his listeners on the finer points of shooting a federal law enforcement officer).
In his zeal to restore Nixon's reputation, Liddy stands with Patrick Buchanan, who scarcely requires further introduction. The ultra-right pundit and presidential loser has always insisted that the downfall of Nixon was in fact a "coup d'état" by liberals, who had supposedly committed all the same crimes that brought down their old enemy.
But now Buchanan, and Rush Limbaugh, have gone still further, claiming that those who forced Nixon to quit were directly responsible for the ensuing communist victory in Vietnam and the Cambodian genocide. That makes about as much sense as blaming those events on Buchanan and Limbaugh because they both dodged the draft.
But the cannier figures on the right no longer seek to expunge Nixon's crimes. Consider a certain politician who got his start back then as a young activist running the College Republicans.
That budding pol spent the summer of 1974 in Washington, according to historian David Greenberg, circulating pro-Nixon memos from a phony grass-roots group called Americans for the Presidency, and fighting what he thought of as "the lynch-mob atmosphere created in this city by the Washington Post and other parts of the Nixon-hating media." He had worked so closely with the Nixon campaign's dirty tricksters, and become so immersed in their style of politics, that he briefly drew the attention of the Watergate prosecutors. Indeed, his reputation was so grimy that George Herbert Walker Bush, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, had him investigated -- and then dismissed the accusations despite strong taped evidence against him.
That man is named Karl Rove, and he is now the White House deputy chief of staff, the unofficial boss of the Republican Party and the most powerful political figure in the nation aside from the president himself. He may well agree with Liddy and Buchanan, but such stale polemics cannot engage his attention. He is too busy wreaking Nixon's revenge on the rest of us.