One more lesson of Watergate: Spin is futile. Events are decisive.
A persistent myth of the scandal is that journalists were the heroes. The movie version of that story, “All the President’s Men,” is perhaps still for many people the entryway to learning about that period. (It’s a good movie. “Dick” is better). In reality, the press were probably less important in unravelling Watergate than the original Federal Bureau of Investigation investigators, Congress, the special prosecutors and, most of all, the inherent “gang-of-thieves” conflicts within the conspiracy.
That’s not to take anything away from several reporters who did excellent work, and some tough editors and publishers who were willing to get their you-know-what caught in a big fat wringer (click here for more on that story). But even when they do the work, reporters aren’t always the principal actors. When Mark Felt at the FBI leaked to the Washington Post, it wasn’t because Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were brilliant; it was because of the way President Richard Nixon treated Felt personally, and the FBI in general. That’s a Nixon and the bureaucracy story, not a press story.
Nixon was well-served by his communications team. Indeed: Press Secretary Ron Ziegler right away came up what I believe is the best line of spin ever, calling Watergate a “third-rate burglary attempt.” It was a perfect, if ultimately dishonest, phrase for minimizing the importance of the break-in.
To whatever extent they helped Nixon, however, Ziegler’s efforts were soon swamped by events: indictments, revelations, accusations and hard evidence. Against all that, spin was useless.
Which is nothing new. President Ronald Reagan’s supposed “Great Communicator” skills couldn’t prevent his approval ratings from tanking during the 1982 recession; the same with President Bill Clinton’s now-admired rhetorical gifts during his first two years, when his presidenting skills lagged far behind his electoral abilities. During President George W. Bush’s first term, liberals believed they were stymied by the combination of a slick public White House and a compliant press, including the newly emerged Republican-aligned media. None of that did Bush any good when events turned against him in Iraq, New Orleans, and then everywhere else as the economy collapsed.
Events matter. Spin? Sure, presidents should do what they can, but the overall effects are very limited.
[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]