On Friday, I got into a little Twitter tete-a-tete with Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller over this post I wrote last week, which argued that the reason conservatives are acting as though the aftermath of the events in Benghazi is the scandal of the century is that they're frustrated that Barack Obama hasn't had a major scandal, so they're making as big a deal as possible out of whatever's handy. What ensued opened my eyes to something I found surprising, though I suppose I shouldn't have been so naïve. It turns out that many conservatives not only believe Benghazi is far, far more serious than Watergate was, they seem to have no idea what Watergate was actually about or how far-reaching it was. After the number of Treacher's followers tweeting me with "How many people died in Watergate? Huh? Huh?" reached triple digits (each tweet no doubt considered by its author to be a snowflake of insight), I decided that since the story broke 40 years ago, we all might need a reminder of why Watergate was, in fact, a really big deal.
The first and most important thing to remember is that when we say "Watergate," we aren't referring only to the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate hotel. The break-in was merely the event that triggered the investigations that would eventually reveal the full magnitude of Richard Nixon's crimes and the crimes committed by many of the people who worked for him. As Jonathan Bernstein has written, for starters, imagine if Barack Obama were suspicious of some former Bush administration officials now working at the American Enterprise Institute and repeatedly ordered Rahm Emanuel to get people to break in to AEI in order to steal files that could be used to embarrass or blackmail those officials. Nixon did that (the Brookings Institution was the think tank in question). Bernstein goes on:
The president's men, sometimes at Nixon's instructions, sometimes with his knowledge, and sometimes perhaps without his direct instructions or knowledge but always in keeping with his general orders to his top staff, also planted spies in the camp of Democratic campaigns; broke into Democratic headquarters, photographed documents, and planted bugs; broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to learn things that could be used to destroy his image in the press; attempted to plant left-wing materials in the home of the guy who shot George Wallace; planned to (and perhaps did) selectively leak classified materials about foreign policy in order to hurt the Democrats; forged materials about foreign policy (the death of South Vietnam's President Diem) in order to plant false stories in the press that would hurt the Democrats; wiretapped government officials; paid a private investigator to tail Ted Kennedy; performed other dirty tricks such as forged letters intended to manipulate the Democratic presidential nomination process (efforts that may indeed have been successful); and other illegal, abuse and unethical actions -- this is not a comprehensive list.
Those were the original crimes. What followed was obstruction of justice as the White House, with the active leadership of the president, lied to FBI investigators and grand juries, destroyed evidence, suborned perjury by prearranging false testimony; suborned perjury by paying off witnesses and either promising or at least hinting at the promise of presidential pardons in exchange for false testimony, and using the authority of the presidency to derail and undermine FBI investigators and prosecutors. Again, the president was personally actively involved in all of those things.
The scandal also revealed so many repugnant statements and acts, some of them illegal and some of them not, that I suppose it's hard to keep them all in your head. For instance, Judeophiles that conservatives have become, they may like to forget that the White House tapes showed Nixon to be a vicious anti-Semite ("The government is full of Jews. Second, most Jews are disloyal") who ordered his staff to assemble lists of Jews working within the executive branch so he could identify his enemies (the aide who carried out a Jew-counting operation in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fred Malek, is to this day a major Republican fundraiser). Of course, there was also the "enemies list" of Nixon opponents targeted for harassment; one memo detailed "how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies." Among the crimes planned but never executed, the most colorful has to be G. Gordon Liddy's plan to murder columnist Jack Anderson. Liddy was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping; today he is a popular conservative radio host. Among those who ended up going to prison for their crimes in the Watergate scandal were the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the president's chief domestic policy adviser. The scandal was so damning that facing impeachment and almost certain conviction, the president of the United States resigned.
The point is "Watergate" was not just a break-in. It was a panoply of government malfeasance and outright criminality the likes of which the country had never seen before and will probably never see again.
It is true, as my conservative friends point out, that no one actually died in Watergate, while there were four deaths in Benghazi. Those deaths were a terrible tragedy. But unless some evidence emerges that President Obama or somebody else in his administration, through some act of corruption or misconduct, actually caused those deaths, the deaths don't raise the magnitude of the "scandal" past that of other scandals that weren't related to any deaths. For instance, 241 service members Ronald Reagan sent to Beirut were killed in the bombing of Marine barracks in October 1983, but I'll bet that not one of my angry Twitter correspondents considers that a "Reagan administration scandal" (nor, by the way, did almost any Democrats at the time, rightly or wrongly).
For the record, I agree with Kevin Drum on this point: Let's go ahead and investigate what happened in Benghazi. If that investigation helps us improve security for our personnel operating in dangerous places, that would be a positive outcome. But let's be honest: Republicans aren't worked into a lather about this because of their long-standing passionate commitment to security at our embassies and consulates. They're hoping that if we keep digging, some kind of nefarious behavior will be discovered, and they'll be able to use it to embarrass the administration. That's politics, of course, so it isn't all that surprising. But that's all it is. And the idea that Susan Rice going on television and delivering some slightly inaccurate talking points constitutes a "cover-up" on par with the Nixon administration suborning perjury, paying hush money, and obstructing justice in a whole variety of other ways? That's just insane.
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