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Why We’re Still Obsessed With Watergate

The reasons that Nixon’s scandal endures when other presidents’ disgraces have not.

Nixon may be the rare political subject who never ceases to be interesting, but even he would not captivate us anew every five or 10 years had not Watergate tapped into something deep in the American psyche. The United States was fractured and divided in the early 1970s, in some ways as divided as we are today, but Nixon managed to bring about, however temporarily, a strange and rapid consensus. As the evidence mounted, Republicans and Democrats, right-wingers and left-wingers, converged around the imperative that he must resign or be removed from office. Across the spectrum people saw that at the root of Watergate was Nixon’s heedlessness toward the legal and constitutional limits on his power, his belief, as he later told the British television personality, “that if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Nixon treated the FBI, the CIA and the IRS as instruments of his own will and desire. Burglaries and perjury did not trouble him.

This view of limitless executive power alarmed Americans — and still compels our attention — because it taps into the most fundamental concerns in American politics since its founding: the fear of the subversion of democracy by an overly powerful executive. The American Revolution may have begun as simply a war for independence from Britain but it came to embrace the rejection of monarchy itself. So fearful did the Americans remain of centralized power that their first government, the Articles of Confederation, allowed for no executive at all. And while the Constitution of course established a presidency, its powers were carefully hedged. Thereafter, whenever any president sought to expand those powers — Andrew JacksonAbraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt — he was decried as a would-be monarch, tyrant or dictator, with the terminology changing according to the era.

Typically, after a moment of controversy passes, we come to see these sorts of attacks on a president as partisan, hyperbolic, even hysterical. (Remember the panic about Barack Obama’s supposedly dangerous appointment of executive branch “czars”?) But with Nixon they were well-founded. They came, moreover, after several decades of an increasingly “imperial presidency”,” as the phrase had it: an executive branch that was growing in size, scope and power, through World War II and the Cold War, consigning the (relatively) weak presidency of the 19th century irretrievably to the dust heap of history. Watergate was a real and necessary reckoning with the growth of presidential power and the dangers that it posed.