A quarter-century later, what hath Watergate wrought?

February 10, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- As the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and cover-up approaches, five major figures from that most devastating political scandal gathered here the other day to consider its lessons and legacy.

The beleaguered administration of President Richard Nixon was represented by John Dean, the then-youthful White House counsel who warned Nixon of a ''cancer growing on the presidency'' and subsequently went to jail in the conspiracy, and by Leonard Garment, another counsel who advised Nixon not to destroy the tapes that eventually triggered his resignation.

Representing the team that brought him down were Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, partner of Carl Bernstein in the reportorial team that got most of the goods on Nixon, and Joseph Califano, the newspaper's lawyer in resisting the Nixon White House's legal efforts to stymie the investigation.

The forum was an American Bar Association conference on communications law that reviewed the Watergate affair with an eye to clarifying the relationship today between investigative journalism and the law. Central to the discussion was a question that has always been a puzzle: Why didn't Nixon burn the tapes that did him in?

But also raised by the panel was whether the Watergate investigation by the Post, as Mr. Garment put it, ''did not in fact set loose an uncontrolled monster that is prowling the land'' today, as seen in the seemingly endless inquiries into Whitewater, Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethical misconduct and the 1996 fund-raising excesses of the Clinton White House.

The panel consensus on the first was simply that burning the tapes would have been a most serious obstruction of justice. The failure to burn them not only cooked Nixon's goose, but even today after his death, as the tapes are released they continue to provide the stuff of history and further insight into one of the nation's most intriguing presidents.

Mr. Woodward called the Nixon tapes ''the gift that keeps on giving.'' And Mr. Bradlee, thanking Mr. Garment for advising against their destruction, said they ''are going to escort me to my grave with a big smile on my face.''

Decisive role of press

Although there was much talk about the White House tapes, which produced the ''smoking gun'' that confirmed Nixon's involvement in the cover-up and finally brought him down, the discussion also underscored the decisive role of the Post's investigative efforts. Mr. Dean argued that while the newspaper's early stories on Watergate merely ''were nibbling around the edges'' of the affair, they put pressure on Judge John Sirica to pursue the case against the Watergate burglars.

But Mr. Woodward raised questions himself about the Watergate investigation launching an era of reportorial zeal that now often lacks an ability to differentiate between the cataclysmic and the inconclusive in uncovering wrongdoing by high public officials. He cited a columnist's recent description of Watergate as ''the ,, Manhattan Project of the information age,'' making a bomb able to ''do damage and destroy things out of proportion to the size of the bomb.''

Mr. Woodward pointed to a ''kind of clarity'' about the Watergate scandal that made it readily understandable to voters in a way that the recent scandals have not been. ''We have not found a way to signal that this [scandal] is a 6 on the Richter Scale or an 8,'' he said. ''We're all somewhat prisoners of Watergate,'' he said of the journalistic fraternity in its sometimes endless investigations of various affairs that failed to achieve such clarity.

Mr. Bradlee, however, suggested that the press has ''eased up'' since Watergate and should be pursuing such matters as the Democratic fund-raising in 1996 with ever-greater intensity. Twenty-five years after Watergate, it was a reminder of the critical role the news media have played and should play as watchdog in an era of continued public distrust of elected leaders.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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