Late last week I participated in this two-day conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, organized by historian and documentary filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan, who had previously interviewed me at great length for this documentary on the JFK assassination. Shane kindly put me on the program even though I had never published anything about Watergate before, and it gave me an opportunity to re-examine some questions that had bothered me since the Watergate era and which I felt had never gotten enough attention. My presentation is in the last session of the conference, "The Legacy of Watergate," and although I now realize that I left out a key piece of evidence that surfaced twenty years ago. I am not going to go into the content of my presentation here, although I'll be glad to take questions about it in the comments. Instead I want to take up another issue: the way that Watergate changed the role of the press, and contributed to related changes in the intellectual world.
The late Bill Strauss liked to point out that Watergate was very much a generational event. In a different era, two reporters in their late twenties would probably not have been able to sell their editors on a sensational story implicating the White House in criminal activity. Woodward and Bernstein were in fact on the leading edge of the Boom generation, born in 1943 and 1944 (although Bernstein is much more of a Boomer in his personality and Woodward more of a Silent.) The Vietnam War had already largely discredited the older GI generation's leadership, and their GI editor Ben Bradlee, while trying to hold his young reporters to high journalistic standards, was more than happy to go with the flow. Sam Ervin, another key figure, showed the strength of character and the independence of mind characteristic of the Lost generation (see also Truman, Harry). Unfortunately, Watergate became a template, politically, journalistically, and legally, which had a very unfortunate influence on American life for the next few decades.
Too many reporters and editors, apparently, spent the rest of their careers looking for the next Watergate, and often settled for ersatz substitutes. More importantly, the mainstream media gradually arrogated to itself the role of the nation's moral arbiter, not only identifying evil, but trying to mete out appropriate punishment. Gary Hart, as many have pointed out, was the first political figure to crash and burn over misdeeds that earlier generations would have ignored. One unfortunate legacy of the scandal was the special counsel law, which cost many innocent men hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves against very weak charges, and allowed Kenneth Starr to carry out a legal vendetta against Bill Clinton. Cases like Watergate or Iran-Contra did require special prosecutors, but Congress should have authorized them on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the charges were sufficiently serious. Presidents like Reagan and Clinton did find strategies to survive, and often protect their surrogates, nonetheless. Court challenges and classification kept Lawrence Walsh from pursuing many of the most serious charges surrounding Iran-Contra, and President George H. W. Bush--himself implicated in the scandal--pardoned most of the men who had been convicted of anything. Clinton survived his impeachment. It took a very long time for many of the worst episodes of the George W. Bush administration to be investigated at all, and by the time a Senate committee released a powerful torture report, the country had lost interest. Robert Mueller was a failed special prosecutor under Donald Trump, in my opinion, and Trump survived two impeachments thanks to partisanship with his base of support intact. He remains a serious threat to get back into the White House.
The new journalism has found its real home, as I have pointed out before, on the nation's op-ed pages. A few dozen pundits, almost completely unconstrained, explain to us two or three times a week what is wrong with the United States--whether the government or the majority of the American people agree with them or not. Many on the left come from the tradition that was born around the time of Watergate, that holds both American government and American society to be irredeemably evil, dominated by racism and patriarchy. The enormous progress of both minorities and women in the last 50 years only seems to have made them much more shrill, for reasons that I will try to address. Many of their columns don't even propose remedies for the evils that they identify, but content themselves with jeremiads. Many academics, especially in the humanities, take a similar view. And meanwhile, it seems to me, our political leadership has largely given up the task of defining what the nation's problems are and how we can meet them. Republicans generally argue that we have too much government while Democrats focus on the wishes of certain political constituencies. At the same time, the country has lost much of its interest in what the government is doing. Last week Joe Biden suffered what really should have been a severe setback, when the most important Central American governments boycotted his international summit because he--copying his last few Republican presidents--refused to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But this did not provoke any political debate to speak of. Democrats are once again focusing on the sins of Donald Trump, while Republicans emphasize inflation and culture war issues on which Democratic constituencies are out of touch with much of the population. Watergate occurred in part because many Americans trusted the government too much, but we now see what happens when we all trust it much too little.
On another front, inflation is on my mind because my new history of the US has now reached 1981, and I have been reminded of the astonishing toll inflation took on our politics from 1965 until that year. After eight years of extraordinary price stability from 1958 through 1965, inflation was never below 3 percent from then until 1996, and it topped 10% three times from 1974 through 1980. It dominated domestic politics under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and played a huge role in Ford's defeat in 1976 and Carter's in 1980. All through that era, those three presidents frequently suggested that a severe recession might stop inflation but refused to select that alternative. In 1981 Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan did select it. Unemployment remained over 5 percent until 1987, but inflation did drop and Reagan somehow convinced the country that he had worked a miracle. Now, faced with a new upward spike, the Biden administration appears to have no idea of what to do. One thing that has not changed over the last half century is the normal rhythm of American electoral politics. Midterm elections have been devastating to sitting presidents in 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018. Even though loyalty to a demagogue who tried to overthrow the constitution now dominates one party, that party seems almost certain to benefit from that same rhythm this fall.