After 20 years, its legacy withers


June 17, 1992|By Sara Fritz | Sara Fritz,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- 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 being blurred by new political developments and a fading national memory.

Former President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, is working tirelessly to rehabilitate his reputation. The idealistic reformers 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 of focusing too much on frivolous matters. And many of the sweeping legislative reforms that followed 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 serving in government -- such as 30-year-old Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa -- have no personal recollection of the lengthy congressional hearings, the categorical White House denials, the Supreme Court's momentous decision requiring Mr. Nixon to surrender his secret tapes, the president's tearful farewell or the conviction of presidential aides.

To politicians and political scientists alike, it now appears that one of the only 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 again fueling sentiment for reform in Congress and, in addition, creating support for the protest candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot for president. Two decades after Mr. Nixon's men broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in an office 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 devoted to reform that itself flourished because of Watergate. "Out of it grew many reforms. . . . But these things are cyclical in nature. . . . I think we are in the process of reform once again."

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

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

While Watergate brought about many reforms 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," Ms. Garment said.

Perhaps no one in the United States has tried harder to bury the memory of Watergate than Mr. Nixon himself, who now 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 Mr. Nixon's best efforts will never succeed in washing away the stain Watergate left on his historical reputation, Mr. Kutler said. "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 disclosed, Congress began asserting itself, putting restraints on what had come to be known under Mr. Nixon as the "imperial presidency."

Congress was emboldened by the election of more than 80 reform-minded Democratic members in November 1974, many of them liberals chosen in 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 Congress itself.

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