It’s easy to compare it all to Watergate. An unhinged Republican president. The nefarious men with whom he surrounded himself. The dirty tricks. The undermining of democratic norms. The intrepid group of reporters trying to get to the bottom of it all. A criminal case proceeding even as new scoops emerge and legislators continue to investigate. But our perceptions of the Watergate affair, some forty-five years later, are shaped not by how it began but by how it ended. It is a tidy story and we perceive it today as having an inexorable result: of course, a crooked president had to resign in disgrace. But that’s surely not what our parents and grandparents thought in June 1972, when the “third-rate burglary” occurred, or in January 1973, when the trial of the burglars began. To our predecessors, that time was as foggy and inconclusive as today’s events are.
Which is why comparisons to Watergate are so facile. Never mind the obvious factual differences in the stories—the allegations of Russian collusion are far more grave—American law, politics, and journalism are far too different now to think that matters will unfold the way they did in the 1970s. As complex a story as Watergate was, it reads like a children’s book compared to what Mueller and his team are dealing with. As vicious and as partisan as the events were back then, they seem quaint in comparison to the poisonous atmosphere in which the current scandal is unfolding. We can still talk about the possibility of impeachment, but it will be an even more partisan process than it was in 1974.