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The Real Lessons of Watergate

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

From Make Them Accountable: Famed Iran/Contra investigative reporter Bob Parry has offered his nonprofit, the Consortium for Independent Journalism, as the basis for building a new media empire dedicated to the truth. Which of you will join us in making that happen?

The Real Lessons of Watergate
By Robert Parry, June 3, 2005

As the Washington Post again basks in the faded glory of its Watergate coverage, many of the scandal�s crucial lessons remain obscure even to people close to the iconic events of 33 years ago. Ironically, that�s especially true for those on the winning side.
Indeed, it could be said that today�s U.S. political imbalance � tilting so much in favor of Republicans over Democrats � derived from the simple fact that conservatives learned the real lessons of Watergate while the liberals didn�t.

Most importantly, the bitter experience of Watergate taught the conservatives the need to control the flow of information at the national level.

Following President Richard Nixon�s resignation in 1974, former Treasury Secretary William Simon and other conservative leaders began pulling together the resources for building the right-wing media infrastructure that is now arguably the most intimidating force in U.S. politics. A key goal was to make sure they could protect future Republican presidents from �another Watergate.� [For details, see Robert Parry�s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Meanwhile, liberals largely treated the Watergate scandal as manna from heaven and assumed that similar gifts would be delivered by the mainstream news media whenever future Republican governments stepped out of line. The Left saw little need for media investment and instead stressed local grassroots organizing around social issues�

The Left�s faith in grassroots politics wasn�t shaken even by a long string of political disasters, from the 12 years of restored Republican rule under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to the impeachment of Bill Clinton to George W. Bush�s success in snatching Election 2000 away from Al Gore and then leading the nation to war with Iraq�

[O]ne lesson of Watergate is that aggressive journalists can make a difference often in ways that can�t be predicted beforehand. If no one�s there to ask questions and challenge deceptive answers, cover-ups are far more likely to succeed�

Conversely, the lesson learned by the Republicans was the need to intimidate freewheeling journalists as much as possible and to make sure editors grant them little leeway in pursuing a politically sensitive story that could harm the conservative cause.

When I interviewed Spencer Oliver in 1992, he told me, �What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not �don�t do it,� but �cover it up more effectively.� They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.�

The conservative success at building a media infrastructure that could protect Republican leaders was one of the great political accomplishments of recent years, much as the progressives� failure to counter it may be viewed as one of the great blunders.

One consequence was that when Republican officials � including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush � ran afoul of the Iran-Contra Affair, the newly minted right-wing machine showed it could prevent �another Watergate.�

At the Associated Press in the mid-1980s, I was one of the reporters involved in unearthing that scandal. Though I never expected the work to be easy, I was stunned by how strong the conservative rearguard defenses were and how intimidated many of my mainstream colleagues became.

Rather than pursuing the Iran-Contra Affair with Watergate-like zeal, the major news organizations acted more like they wanted the story to go away. In 1987, after I left AP for a job at Newsweek, I found some senior editors at the Washington Post-owned magazine expressing the view, apparently held by Post publisher Katharine Graham, that �we don�t want another Watergate.��

In my 1997 review of Walsh�s book, I wrote:

�In crucial ways, Watergate, the signature scandal of the 1970s, and Iran-Contra, the signature scandal of the 1980s, were opposites. Watergate showed how the constitutional institutions of American democracy � the Congress, the courts and the press � could check a gross abuse of power by the Executive. A short dozen years later, the Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated how those same institutions had ceased to protect the nation from serious White House wrongdoing.� [See�s �Firewall: Inside the Iran-Contra Cover-up.�]�

When the Reagan-Bush years ended, the conservatives discovered additional uses for their multi-billion-dollar media machine beyond �preventing another Watergate.�

After Bill Clinton managed to win the White House in Election 1992, the Right showed that the machine � though built for defense � could play offense equally well. The machine could manufacture �scandals� about Clinton as easily as it could disassemble threats to Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush.

In many ways, the hyped �Whitewater scandal� about Clinton�s Arkansas real-estate deal was Republican payback for Nixon�s Watergate resignation. Even the disgraced Nixon, living in retirement, saw Whitewater as his opportunity for revenge�

During the Clinton years, the mainstream press also got a chance to show that it could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican and thus buy some reprieve from the endless conservative indictment of a �liberal media.�

As the attacks mounted, Clinton and other Democrats expressed puzzlement about why the �supposedly liberal media� was so hostile. But the mainstream media�s attacks on the Clinton administration were logical if one had observed Washington�s political evolution since Watergate.

In the mid-1970s, when the Left chose to turn toward �grassroots organizing� and away from doing media, Washington journalists as well as government investigators like Walsh became easy targets for the Right and its well-funded anti-press attack groups.

As more and more journalists lost their careers from these conservative assaults, the press colleagues left behind either already sympathized with conservative policies or realized that self-protection required some accommodation with the Right. Certainly, the last thing a journalist wanted was to offend the Right, get labeled a �liberal� and then face relentless scrutiny by conservative press critics.

The last three decades of U.S. political history followed from the fateful choices made in the wake of Watergate: a media-disengaged Left, a media-rearmed Right and a mainstream media that shelved journalistic principles in favor of a more immediate principle, career survival.

[For more on the media crisis, see�s �The Left�s Media Miscalculation� or �Mystery of the Democrats� New Spine.�]

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