COMMENTARY: Remembering Watergate’s lessons

Given all the other excitement coming from Washington recently, you might have missed this historical anniversary. On May 17, 1973, millions of Americans sat down in front of their TVs to watch the start of the Congressional hearings on Watergate.

And on May 17, 2017, 44 years later, Robert Mueller was appointed to be a special prosecutor to investigate any collusion between Team Trump and the Russian government. In a sign of just how much life has accelerated since the 1970s, it took Richard Nixon over four years to get to that point in his presidency; it took Trump 118 days.

The Watergate analogy has been over-used for decades, but in this case it is irresistible. It is far too soon to know whether the Trump campaign or administration has done anything illegal or unconstitutional. Determining just what did and did not happen is why you have investigations. Still, there is an awful lot of smoke pouring out of the West Wing right now.

Hard as it may be to imagine nowadays, the Watergate investigations had bi-partisan support. Republican Sen. Howard Baker provided the most memorable summation of the hearings when he asked, “What did the President know? And when did he know it?” Seven Republican members of Congress voted in favor of the first article of impeachment against Nixon. Nixon’s own Attorney General Eliot Richardson resigned rather than carry out an order from Nixon he regarded as wrong. He put duty to country before loyalty to president.

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But there were also Republicans who saw the Watergate hearings and the subsequent move toward impeachment only in partisan terms. They blamed the media and Democrats for Nixon’s troubles. Dick Cheney was one of those who thought Nixon got a raw deal. Newt Gingrich was another. When he and other Republicans brought impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton for lying about a tawdry sexual affair, many of them saw it as payback for Watergate.

Nixon, of course, was not impeached. Rather than fight the charges he denied, he chose to resign, ending what his successor Gerald Ford called "our long national nightmare." Within a month, Ford issued a full and unconditional pardon for Nixon, which kept him from having to face prosecution. Ford had hoped this would allow the nation to heal and to move forward. He may well have been right. On the other hand, his pardon meant Nixon was never called to account in a court of law. It meant, simply, that the president was above the law.

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That has been the dilemma for any Congress looking at the misdeeds of presidents: should the individual be held accountable for his actions, or is it more important that the office be protected from disgrace? When Congress began investigating Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, leaders in both chambers decided the nation could not stomach another Watergate-like spectacle, though Reagan’s constitutional violations were at least as egregious as Nixon’s.

In his revolutionary 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense," Thomas Paine wrote: "For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other." Stirring words, and they galvanized the struggling movement for independence. Paine argued that we could be a nation of laws, not of kings.

But I’m not sure we really ever believed it. One lesson of Watergate – and of Iran-Contra, too – is that we are not quite prepared to prosecute a president, no matter his alleged crimes. Paine’s words haunt us even more as we begin the investigations into a man who seems to fancy himself a king more than any other president in our history.

Steven Conn, a regular contributor, teaches history at Miami University.

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