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Watergate is far from dead

By Krystle Gatt - posted Thursday, 21 April 2011

Few modern American Presidents have commanded the attention of writers, composers and playwrights in quite the same way as Richard Nixon. His presidency may be remembered for many reasons: marked achievements; resounding embarrassments that seemingly threatened the US constitution; and a good dose of institutionalised paranoia.

Yet typically, the 37th president of the United States is remembered for one key event: the notorious political scandal that forced him to resign. Nixon passed away 17 years ago tomorrow, though the part of his legacy he wished would go away – Watergate – is far from dead.

One need only think back to 2005 when the identity of "Deep Throat" was revealed, or 2007 when the movie Frost/Nixon was released, or even to recent times as Wiki-leaks released top-secret classified information, to see the continued relevance of Watergate. The suffix 'gate' has become ubiquitous, attached to the end of every news headline describing a supposed instance of political wrongdoing. If you haven't already wondered what "Iguana-gate", "Ute-gate", and "Climate-gate" was all about, future spotting of journalistic labelling may now lead you to realise that Watergate is here to stay.


'Watergate' and Nixon have been considered inseparable. Nixon was elected in 1968 on the promise of ending America's involvement in the Vietnam War, but instead he escalated the attack, bypassed Congress, and bombed the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos in what was regarded as an illegal operation. The Pentagon Papers, revealing the operating rationale of the US in Vietnam through the 1960s, were just the icing on the cake. Leaked and published in 1971, they revealed a deepening involvement of the war through history, rather than a retreat.

Nixon tended to be his own worst enemy. His suspicious personality had as much to do with his downfall as anything else. A conservative Republican, Nixon saw his world in black and white. If you weren't loyal, you were an enemy, or worse still, a communist. He was paranoid and he hated the liberal press.

But Nixon wasn't a totally bad egg. He effected many positive changes both domestically and internationally. He established the Environmental Protection Agency; he abolished segregation in Southern schools; he emphasised rehabilitation in the 'war on drugs'; he recognized the People's Republic of China and laid the groundwork for détente with the USSR.

Maybe without Nixon the US would have disregarded Watergate. After all methods such as wiretapping to gain political intelligence for elections had been undertaken in previous presidencies. As Nixon would say, his Administration's only mistake was getting caught; if it weren't for this, the can of worms containing all of the White House horrors would not have been opened.

What can safely be concluded is the Oval Office had taken upon itself to do the job of the FBI, using a system of internal surveillance, and by doing so had not only further irritated its relations with powerful political players in Congress, but had frustrated the intelligence community. Thus the mistake had created an environment where not only the general population was enraged, but the institutions which govern the nation came to join the "uproar" party. This was a battle from all corners. A battle which may better be described as the "The Wars of Watergate".

Nixon's legacy is also notorious for the effects it had on the processing of US presidential records. The legislation enacted in response to Watergate, which placed presidential material in the hands of the government (ensuring they would not be destroyed), in actuality created a legal battle between Nixon and his loyalists, the state, archivists, scholars and advocacy groups, which lasted for decades.


This tug of war concerned Nixon's privacy on one side, and access to the richest and possibly most important documentary record in United States history, on the other. Never before did government officials have to testify in court, on multiple occasions, in defence of how they went about their jobs.

Although the materials deemed to be "private" and returned to Nixon during this time were finally deeded to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2007, amalgamating all of the Nixon materials, the battle over the Nixon legacy did not end there. Rather the latest instalment of the "Wars of Watergate" is being held in Nixon's own backyard.

NARA brought the Nixon Library into the Federal Presidential system in 2006, promising more strictly factual exhibits. This resulted in the updating of the library's Watergate exhibit to provide an illustration of history that was not seen to be Nixon's version of the events. This process – again adding fuel to the Watergate fire – took over three years due to numerous objections from the previous proprietors of the library; The Nixon Foundation.

Watergate transcends its actors in significance. The "Wars of Watergate" have succeeded in generating more debacle than any other scandal. Furthermore, Watergate persists in reverberating in the political consciousness not merely in the United States, but internationally. Watergate offers us more than merely historical scandal or a handy suffix for news headlines. The complexities that the phenomenon has created continue to draw in new players and new angles that have yet to be considered.

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About the Author

Krystle Gatt is a PhD Candidate in RMIT University’s School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning. Her research focuses on the Watergate phenomenon and its global implications.

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