By LARRY SMITH
IT’S been 42 years since the Watergate break-in that eventually forced US President Richard Nixon from office, after an investigation that has been described as one of the greatest achievements of modern journalism.
That “third-rate burglary” in June 1972 made few waves at first. In fact, Nixon was re-elected by a landslide a few months later, and it was entirely feasible that government obstruction would have succeeded in putting a lid on the whole story forever.
But that didn’t happen - thanks to the secret help of an official nicknamed Deep Throat (after an infamous 1970s porn film). This anonymous source encouraged Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to pursue the story, which led to Senate hearings, and finally to the resignation of the president.
We now know that the source was Mark Felt, former deputy director of the FBI. Until he revealed himself in 2005, Felt was the most famous anonymous person in America. But his reliability was also legendary. Former Post editor Ben Bradlee told the Public Broadcasting Corporation recently that of the 400 Watergate stories he published, only one panned out badly.
In the early 1970s, Tough Call was studying journalism at the University of Miami, enjoying the tail end of the counterculture revolution. Despite all the hoo-ha about Watergate, it was the Vietnam War that occupied the minds of most American college students at the time. They faced the draft after graduation – a fate considered the same as death.
But Watergate was nevertheless a watershed in American history: “1972 was a time when no one could imagine a president of the United States breaking the law,” as one forty-ish commentator put it. “We were trusting and believed what we read and heard back then.”
Well, that comment certainly didn’t apply to the students who hung out with Tough Call back then. Watergate only confirmed our general cynicism and mistrust of the authorities. But hopefully it has made it more difficult for such naivete to continue to exist among the general population.
According to Simon Wickens, a senior Canadian editor who has worked in both the US and the Bahamas, Watergate was “one of the high points of modern journalism, setting a benchmark and creating self-respect for practitioners of a profession too long stereotyped as shallow, sensationalist scribblers out to sell newspapers and their own grandmothers if need be.”
Watergate inspired a whole generation of reporters. As one young American put it recently: “I wanted to become a journalist and expose the truth. I wanted to know people like Deep Throat who risked so much in order to do the right thing.”
But although Deep Throat provided much-needed validation to the Post’s editors, Seattle Times columnist Floyd McKay pointed out that Watergate was “relentless shoe-leather reporting. Door by door, night after night, Woodward and Bernstein looked for people with some knowledge of the affair who would be willing to talk.
“Because their results lacked graphic detail and were often based on anonymous sources, the scandal failed to attract television coverage and did not impact the 1972 re-election campaign of President Richard M Nixon.”
Perhaps, after all these years, a little background is in order to refresh our memories. The divisive environment that spawned Watergate was created by the anti-Vietnam war movement – the first time that American leadership and military action had been seriously challenged on a wide scale.
In 1971, the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers – a secret military account of the war that differed sharply from public presentations. So White House agents were sent to burglarise a psychiatrist’s office to find files to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the former defence analyst who leaked the documents.
A year later, five men were arrested trying to bug Democratic Party offices in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. One of them (James McCord) worked for Nixon’s re-election committee and was connected to a former CIA agent linked to the White House (Howard Hunt).
According to the Washington Post, “By October 1972, the FBI had established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.”
But that did not stop the Nixon administration from covering up its involvement and dismissing the Post story as “not only fiction, but a collection of absurdities”. Nixon lived up well to his derisive nickname at the time - Tricky Dicky.
The burglars were convicted in January 1973 – well after Nixon’s re-election. But soon the president’s closest aides were forced to quit as the scandal grew. They were advisors John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman, and attorney-general Richard Kleindienst. White House lawyer John Dean was fired by Nixon at the same time and ended up as a star witness in the Senate hearings.
In June 1973, Dean told the Senate that Nixon knew of, and helped plan, the Watergate cover-up. And soon it became known that Nixon had been taping his conversations in the White House for posterity. This led to a furious legal battle over “executive privilege”, which the Senate eventually won.
Then, in October 1973, Nixon ordered the dismissal of Archibald Cox, the independent prosecutor he had appointed to investigate Watergate only a few months earlier. Both the attorney-general and his deputy refused the order on grounds of principle, and were fired themselves. These events became known as “the Saturday Night Massacre”.
Solicitor-general Robert Bork became acting attorney-general and proceeded to carry out Nixon’s bidding.
(Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1987 was blocked by the Senate, mainly as a result of lingering hostility over this obsequious act).
In July 1974, Nixon was forced to turn over the White House tapes to Congress. Despite his protestations that “there can be no whitewash at the White House”, the recordings showed he had, in fact, tried to divert the investigation. Shortly afterward, Congress passed the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice.
Seeing the writing on the wall, on August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first American president to resign office. Vice President Gerald Ford replaced him, and a few months later pardoned the former president of all charges related to Watergate.
Although Ford said that by accepting the pardon the former president was admitting his guilt, Nixon went on to become an elder statesman while many of his top aides and cabinet ministers served prison terms for their roles. Nixon died in 1994.
The Watergate investigation was brought to a fitting close in 2003, when the University of Texas (the largest university in the US) bought Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate archives for $5 million. Who would have thought that a collection of reporters’ notes could fetch so much money.
Watergate had parallels with the “nation for sale” drug trafficking scandal in the Bahamas during the 1980s, when NBC television broke the news that certain PLP government officials were on the payroll of Colombian drug lords. It also resembled the casino scandal of the 1960s, when the Wall Street Journal and other publications detailed payoffs to certain members of the UBP government.
In 1967, Life Magazine reported on a pattern of corruption in the Bahamas that included secret bank accounts to launder organised crime profits skimmed from casinos in Nassau and Freeport that had been legalised by the UBP government. The Wall Street Journal had earlier reported on personal and political payments to UBP officials of more than $2.5m over several years.
Both the UBP and PLP governments agreed to commissions of inquiry to look into these charges – in 1967 and in 1984 respectively. By the time the casino inquiry took place, the UBP had already been voted out of office in the historic January 1967 general election, but the PLP went on to win the 1987 election despite fall-out from the inquiry into drug trafficking.
Just like Nixon, the late Sir Lynden Pindling, who was prime minister in the 1980s, angrily protested his innocence. And just like US attorney-general John Mitchell, our attorney-general, Paul Adderley, tried to put the blame on a massive anti-government conspiracy.
But as the international media pursued the story, Sir Lynden’s closest ally – deputy prime minister Arthur Hanna – resigned over the way the crisis was being handled. And cabinet ministers Perry Christie and Hubert ingraham were fired for urging a more aggressive response to the corruption charges.
It may be difficult to recall those days when the Bahamas was known as a crook’s paradise, ruining our reputation and spawning social problems that still bedevil us today. But the facts are there – enshrined in a 140-page report published in 1967 and a 500-page report published in 1984.
They both linked a number of high-ranking officials and politicians to foreign gangsters and outlined the consequences for the rest of us.
What was the role of our press and civil society during these episodes? Unfortunately – and for a variety of reasons – most of the telling information was provided by the American media. One wonders what would have happened if it had all been up to us.
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