COLUMN ONE : Watergate: Lessons of a Scandal : The expose that upset American politics in the 1970s inspired many reform laws. After 20 years, few of them still have teeth.


It brought down a President, spawned an assertive mood in Congress, fostered a new generation of political leaders, brought about an array of reforms in government, altered American journalism and set a benchmark for subsequent political scandals.

In short, the Watergate scandal radically transformed American politics.

Yet many of the changes wrought by what began as “a third rate burglary” on June 17, 1972, appear to be evaporating. Twenty years later, the legacy of Watergate is becoming blurred by new political developments and a fading national memory.

President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, is working tirelessly to rehabilitate his reputation. The idealists who were drawn into government after Watergate either have become part of the Establishment or have left Washington.

Congress is on the defensive once again, struggling to overcome a series of minor scandals. Journalists are being accused once more of focusing too much on frivolous matters. And many of the sweeping legislative changes brought about after Watergate--such as the War Powers Act, the congressional budget process and limitations on campaign contributions from special interests--are no longer viewed as effective.


In addition, many younger people now in government--such as 30-year-old Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa)--have no personal recollection of the lengthy congressional hearings, the categorical denials from the White House, the Supreme Court’s momentous decision requiring Nixon to surrender his secret tapes, the President’s tearful farewell or the conviction of many of his former aides.

To politicians and political scientists alike, it now appears that one of the few enduring results of Watergate may be the distrust it spawned among Americans about their government. “Watergate generated an attitude of cynicism and mistrust that remains with us today,” said Watergate historian Stanley I. Kutler.

In 1992, that distrust is once again fueling sentiment for reform in Congress and, in addition, creating support for billionaire Ross Perot’s protest candidacy for the presidency. Two decades after Nixon’s men broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in a building named Watergate, the nation appears to be on the verge of yet another political upheaval that could set new rules, just as Watergate did.

“Watergate was the greatest political scandal of our time,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, a citizens lobby that flourished because of Watergate. “Out of it grew many reforms designed to control corruption, abuse of power, secrecy and government for personal gain. But these things are cyclical in nature. You go through these periods where serious problems develop and corrections are made. I think we are in the process of reform once again.”

In the years since Nixon’s downfall, Watergate has provided the prevailing metaphor for scandal in Washington. Not only are the terms cover-up and stonewall now permanent parts of the political lexicon, but every new flurry of allegations of political wrongdoing usually gets a shorthand name ending in gate.

As a benchmark for scandal, Watergate has never been exceeded. Even the Iran-Contra affair, which crippled the presidency of Ronald Reagan, was viewed as much less serious than Watergate because it did not lead to impeachment of the President.

“Watergate set such a high standard for the harm that can be inflicted on a President that it masked the damage that Reagan suffered,” said Michael Schudson, a professor at UC San Diego.

And, while Watergate brought about many changes in government ethics laws, some experts believe it also institutionalized what author Suzanne Garment terms “the politics of scandal,” a widely held presumption that our politicians are corrupt.

“We’ve ended up probably cleaner than ever, feeling dirtier than ever,” Garment said.

Perhaps no one in the United States has tried harder to bury the memory of Watergate than Nixon. He now lives in New Jersey, writes books and pursues what advisers have said is a long-term strategy to rehabilitate himself as an elder statesman and foreign policy guru.

But even Nixon’s best efforts will never succeed in washing away the stain Watergate has left on his name in history, according to Kutler. “The most enduring legacy of Watergate is its impact on the historical reputation of Richard Nixon,” he said. “For Nixon, there is no escape from that history. He can’t win.”

For a time, the Watergate scandal seemed to alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Once the crimes of the Nixon Administration were revealed, Congress began asserting itself more frequently, putting restraints on what, under Nixon, had come to be known as the “imperial presidency.”

Congress was emboldened by the election of more than 80 reform-minded Democrats in November, 1974, most of them liberals from districts that had been represented by Republicans. These so-called “Watergate babies” saw it as their mission both to rein in the executive branch and to democratize the Congress.

The post-Watergate Congress enacted the War Powers Act, designed to prevent future presidents from waging undeclared wars, such as that in Vietnam; the Budget and Impoundment Act, which was to give Congress more control over federal spending decisions; revisions to the Freedom of Information Act designed to improve access to executive branch materials; the Privacy Act, which permitted Americans to see information in federal agency files on themselves, and the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, requiring the President to report all covert operations to Congress.

Yet in subsequent years, members of Congress have been disappointed with the results of their post-Watergate efforts to hold sway over the President. In many cases the intended reforms fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. In other ways, they simply were ineffective.

Reagan’s military adventures in Lebanon and Grenada, as well as President Bush’s deployment of forces to Panama and the Persian Gulf, demonstrated that the President still has broad powers to decide when Americans will be sent to war. The War Powers Act proved virtually useless to Congress in restraining the President in times of world crisis.

In addition, the decision-making process established under the Budget and Impoundment Act has been blamed for contributing to political stalemate and the rising deficit. Intended as a response to Nixon’s refusal to spend money appropriated by Congress, the law created the highly complex spending system involving House and Senate budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office. It also gave rise to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law and the proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The Reagan Administration’s selling weapons to Iran without notifying Congress--the event that precipitated the Iran-Contra scandal--was seen as proof that the legislative branch had once again lost the battle to keep a tight rein on U.S. covert activities abroad.

In the years just after Watergate, Congress often appeared to have the upper hand over Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. By the time Reagan replaced Carter in 1980, it appeared that the public was once again longing for a more assertive leader who could serve as a symbol of national strength.

“Ronald Reagan restored a certain luster to the presidency,” Kutler said. “For a lot of people, the government of the United States is the President.”

As members of Congress felt their power over the executive branch ebbing, frustration replaced the enthusiasm they had had for governing in the 1970s. In the words of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a former Watergate baby: “Now we have a stalemated government, rather than an imperial presidency,”

In order to democratize Congress, the Watergate babies’ first task was to abolish some of the most potent advantages of the seniority system. Beginning in January, 1975, even the most senior committee chairmen could not keep those positions without the approval of the party caucus. Three powerful chairmen from the South--Wright Patman (D-Tex.) of Banking, F. Edward Hebert (D-La.) of Armed Services, and W. R. Poage (D-Tex.) of Agriculture--were toppled immediately.

For a time, it appeared that a new breed of politician would permanently rewrite the rules on Capitol Hill. Then the Watergate babies grew up. Today, many of them are powerful committee chairmen, such as Waxman, who heads the subcommittee on Health and Environment, and George Miller (D-Martinez), who chairs the Interior Committee, and Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) of the Surface Transportation subcommittee.

These former Watergate babies now are the targets of frustrated citizens who seek to use term-limit initiatives to oust them from office and blame them for failing to solve the nation’s problems.

Indeed, some members of that class of 1974 proved to be every bit as conventional as their predecessors. Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr. (D-Ky.), for example, elected president of his freshman congressional class and now chairman of the House Banking subcommittee on oversight and investigations, was recently defeated in the Kentucky Democratic primary after 17 years in Congress by voters who, among other things, objected to his close ties to the thrift industry.

Inevitably, the politics of scandal also caught up with the post-Watergate reformers. Many of the changes they put in place to guarantee integrity in government are now being blamed for inadvertently weakening the political system--especially the laws governing campaign finances.

The 1974 amendment to the federal election laws provided for public financing of presidential elections, limited political contributions of individuals to $2,000 each and sharply restricted the sums members of Congress could spend on their campaigns.

That amendment was weakened within the first year, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley vs. Valeo, that the spending limits imposed on congressional candidates constituted an improper restriction of the right of free speech. Without those limits, the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms began to unravel.

Over the last 20 years, clever candidates have found numerous ways to circumvent the strictures of federal campaign laws. Perhaps the biggest loophole forged by them was the invention of “soft money” contributions, which escape federal limits by passing through state party organizations.

It is indeed ironic that one of the biggest soft-money donors to the Republican Party so far this year is Dwayne O. Andreas, chief executive officer of Archer Daniels Midland Corp. of Decatur, Ill. Andreas, along with his firm, already has contributed $400,000.

In 1972, Andreas made a $25,000 contribution to the Nixon reelection campaign that found its way into the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, Bernard L. Barker. Congress had Andreas and other big Nixon contributors specifically in mind when it sought to limit individual contributors to giving no more than $2,000 each.

In addition, as an unintended consequence of the campaign finance reforms of the early 1970s, political action committees became a dominant force, serving to increase the influence of special interests on the political process.

Another important post-Watergate reform--the independent counsel--may also be in jeopardy. Later this year, when the law that provides for independent counsel investigations comes up for renewal in Congress, it will face strong opposition from critics who say that such probes have become too numerous, too costly and often are politically motivated.

An outgrowth of the position of special prosecutor that investigated the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration, independent counsels are appointed to look into allegations against high-ranking officials--allegations that could not be investigated by the Justice Department without creating a conflict of interest.

Among those who have been investigated by an independent counsel: Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff; Reagan aides Michael K. Deaver and Lyn Nofziger; Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and key players in the Iran-Contra scandal, including White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North.

Abolition of the independent counsel, experts say, would be a sure sign that Watergate is gradually taking its place alongside Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier as just another vaguely remembered scandal in American history.

WATERGATE PROFILES: The main figures of the scandal and where they are today. A5