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Watergate Weighs on Today’s White House

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after a 91-year-old man was revealed last week as the answer to the 30-year-old mystery of the Watergate affair, President Bush cast the scandal as something from the distant past.

“A lot of people wondered ... who ‘Deep Throat’ was, including me,” Bush said after news broke that former FBI official W. Mark Felt had been the source leaking Watergate details to the press. “It would kind of fade from my memory, and then all of a sudden, somebody would pop it back in. Some story would reinvigorate that period.”

And yet, far more than Bush has publicly acknowledged, Watergate and its aftermath have exerted a strong influence on the policies and attitudes of the president and others now in the White House -- some of whom had front-row seats for the scandal as members of the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who worked in the Nixon White House and served as chief of staff to President Ford, has spoken of using his current position to restore powers of the presidency that he believes were diminished as a result of Watergate and the Vietnam War. By withholding details of his energy task force meetings and advising Bush to aggressively take the reins of power after the contested 2000 election, Cheney has tried to rekindle a broad view of executive authority.

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Bush was a student at Harvard Business School when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. He watched as his father, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one of Nixon’s most visible defenders, butted heads with a press the elder Bush believed was out to get the president.

Today, an arm’s-length relationship with the press, a highly controlled message and a restrictive interpretation of public records laws are the norm at the Bush White House.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Nixon aide who also served as chief of staff to Ford, tried to stop Congress’ post-Watergate broadening of the Freedom of Information Act. The act requires the government to disclose certain records to citizens.

Working with Cheney, Rumsfeld persuaded Ford to veto the legislation, according to declassified documents obtained last year by the National Security Archive at Georgetown University. Congress overrode Ford’s veto.

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Today, Rumsfeld often expresses his distaste for leaks and for the press’ handling of scandals such as the revelations of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. Reflecting on Watergate last week, Rumsfeld made clear that he was not ready to declare Felt a hero.

“Anyone who sees wrongdoing ... who works for the United States government, has an obligation to report that wrongdoing to the Department of Justice or to the proper authorities in the department,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to leave any ambiguity about that.”

For the current president, Watergate reinforced a set of feelings that already ran deep in his family, said Peter Schweizer, co-author of “The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty.”

“They have always believed that secrecy and privacy were important for leadership, because they allow decisions to be made without fear of leaks or outside influences,” said Schweizer, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

To the Bush family, Watergate was “a personal failing by Nixon, not an institutional failing,” Schweizer said. “Their view is that weakening the executive was the wrong solution to the problem.”

As the revealing of Felt as Deep Throat became a kind of political Rorschach test -- with some liberals celebrating the FBI’s former No. 2 official as a hero for spilling his secrets and some conservatives branding him a villain -- several people noted that President Bush’s first public words on the matter drew attention to Felt’s relations with the press.

“I’m looking forward to reading about it, reading about his relationship with the news media,” Bush said, though he also noted that he did not think it appropriate to express an opinion on Felt’s place in history.

John W. Dean III, Nixon’s former counsel and author of “Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush,” said Bush’s reaction to the Felt disclosure revealed his feelings on government whistle-blowers.

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“He sort of took the line of the Nixon apologists,” Dean said. “I can’t imagine, given the way this administration feels about the news media, that they hold Mr. Felt in very high estimation.”

One prominent Watergate historian said the president’s mention of Felt’s relationship with the press reflected distaste for dissent within the ranks.

“As the man who controls the whistle, Bush doesn’t like when other people use it,” said Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian and author of “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.” “He’s not going to give any pat on the back to such people.”

A White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, waved off interpretations of the president’s mind-set as “an academic exercise.” He declined to comment further.

The scandal that forced Nixon from power prompted Congress in the months and years that followed to pursue a series of good-government reforms designed to clean up elections and make the executive branch more accountable.

Spurred by the discovery of Nixon’s secret campaign funds, lawmakers imposed finance limitations and set new disclosure requirements. They moved to prevent the abuse of federal agencies after Nixon was accused of using them to monitor his perceived enemies.

One controversial measure enacted after Watergate, the independent counsel law that has been used to investigate wrongdoing in the executive branch, expired toward the end of the Clinton administration.

But lingering weaknesses remain in the executive branch’s authority, officials around Bush have said.

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“One of the things that I feel an obligation on -- and I know the president does too, because we talked about it -- is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors,” Cheney told ABC’s “This Week” in 2002. “And we are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 or 35 years.”

At the time, Cheney was defending his refusal to disclose information about private meetings with energy industry representatives to help formulate the administration’s national energy policy. Cheney’s actions were upheld by the Supreme Court, a ruling that legal experts said enhanced the powers of the executive branch.

Another boost to executive authority came a month after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft ordered agencies to “carefully consider” national security, business confidentiality and privacy before disclosing records under the Freedom of Information Act. Experts said this marked a shift from the prior standard emphasizing disclosure.

Critics point to other examples of the Bush White House acting to enhance or preserve executive power. For example, the White House initially refused to let then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice testify before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. She ultimately testified. For the Bush family, Watergate was a dramatic period.

As Republican Party chairman, George H.W. Bush flew across the country defending Nixon against the growing public sentiment that the president was not being truthful.

Taped conversations between Bush and Nixon reveal Bush’s skepticism toward the news media. In one 1973 exchange, transcribed in Kutler’s book, Bush assured Nixon the country was with him, “in spite of some of the crap you’re reading.”

In a July 1974 letter to his sons, Bush extolled Nixon’s virtues and laid out his faults. But he kept returning to one conclusion: “I can understand the President’s hostility towards press for they despise him,” Bush wrote.

Bush later was among the first to tell Nixon he should resign.

Years later, Bush’s anger toward the press showed itself when the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who forged the relationship with Felt and drove much of the newspaper’s Watergate coverage, requested an interview with the former president. Bush declined.

“I think Watergate and the Vietnam War are the two things that moved beltway journalism into this aggressive, intrusive ‘take no prisoners’ kind of reporting that I can now say I find offensive,” Bush wrote Woodward in a 1998 letter. “The new young cynical breed wants to emulate you. But many of them to do that question the word and the integrity of all in politics. It is almost like their code is ‘You are guilty until proved innocent.’ ”

Under President George W. Bush, leaks are kept to a minimum and White House officials are rarely off-script. The president often criticizes reporters’ use of anonymous sources, although his administration regularly makes officials available under the condition that they be identified only as a “senior administration official.”

“On the scale of whether sources are being smoked out or not smoked out, it is clearly on the side of not smoked out,” Bush told a group of radio and television news directors last week. “There is a lot of sourcing here in Washington, D.C., that never gets called into account. I mean, a lot. I’d say it’s a million to one. That would be the ratio.”

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Times researchers Robin Cochran and Benjamin Weyl contributed to this report.


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