Remember When Breaking the Law Used to Mean Something?

Nixon releases the edited tape transcripts, via

The big piece today is in the Washington Post, where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward share a byline for the first time in 36 years. It’s about President Nixon and Watergate 40 years after the fact, and how the whole situation was much worse than was thought back then:

Ervin’s answer to his own question hints at the magnitude of Watergate: “To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.” Yet Watergate was far more than that. At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.

Today, much more than when we first covered this story as young Washington Post reporters, an abundant record provides unambiguous answers and evidence about Watergate and its meaning. This record has expanded continuously over the decades with the transcription of hundreds of hours of Nixon’s secret tapes, adding detail and context to the hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives; the trials and guilty pleas of some 40 Nixon aides and associates who went to jail; and the memoirs of Nixon and his deputies. Such documentation makes it possible to trace the president’s personal dominance over a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against his real or perceived opponents.

The article is full of great quotes from the Nixon tapes as he became increasingly paranoid and irrational, going on profanity-laced tirades against journalists, the antiwar movement, and “the Jews,” among others. But what is perhaps most notable about the article is the implicit frame it presents. The sense I get from it is that Woodward and Bernstein are presenting a cautionary tale, a kind of story to tell young politicians before you tuck them into bed. “Be careful, kids, or this is where you’ll end up.”

The trouble with this is that recent cases of elite lawbreaking, up to and including top officials, are still almost too common to count. Just for the most obvious example, consider the fact that George Bush has admitted to ordering the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. There’s a ginned up controversy about whether or not that was against the law, but don’t take my word for it, listen to the chief law enforcement officer of the United States:

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder declared that the interrogation practice known as waterboarding amounts to torture, departing from the interpretation of his Bush administration predecessors.

And finally, from the UN Convention Against Torture, Article II, signed by President Reagan:

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Nixon was not the last of the presidential lawbreakers. Far from it.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.