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Monday, July 17, 2017

"Watergate was what it was"

by digby

I highly recommend this interview with Elizabeth Drew by Susan Glasser at Politico Magazine. Drew wrote one of the seminal books about Watergate called "Washington Journals" which everyone should read if you want to to see how that scandal unfolded in real time. She's watching the Trump scandals today with keen interest although she notes that times have changed and our political system is in a very different place making it much more difficult for it to function as it was intended.

“Watergate was what it was,” as Drew puts it.

Then again, not all of those conclusions could have been foreseen at the time. Back in 1974, Drew points out, the country seemed hopelessly divided into what we would now call Red and Blue America and everyone bemoaned what they saw as an unprecedented rift in the national polity. “I think if I had said then that Washington is going to get meaner and more partisan, people would have said, ‘I can’t believe that. That’s not going to happen,’“ Drew says.

But nonetheless that’s how it looks to her now—or even worse. At least, she says, Watergate showed that accountability was possible, and Congress could function the way the founders intended—a question that is still up in the air in the Trump era. “It was a very different kind of politics then. Bipartisanship was not the oddity. It was really the norm.”

And, if anything, Drew has come to believe that the Trump investigation could yield even more serious abuse of power or failure to execute the office than the years’ worth of Nixon probes. What’s more, the Russia scandal, she says, “is in many ways more complicated than Watergate was,” with billionaire Trump’s finances and those of his wealthy son-in-law, Jared Kushner, still to be examined, and multiple, rapidly proliferating lines of inquiry.

But a lot of what Drew has to say—and what re-reading her book in today’s Washington reinforces—is relevant both to Watergate-era D.C. and to the undoubtedly more noxious, and indisputably cruder, politics of Trump’s capital.

Three takeaways seem especially relevant as we wait to see what the Trump scandals will bring—and whether those who believe this presidency can’t possibly go on a full four years will be vindicated, or simply shown to be victims of liberal establishment wishful thinking, trapped in Watergate nostalgia because it offers a four-decade-old template for ousting an unpopular Republican president.

First, and perhaps most important, nothing in politics is inevitable. In hindsight, Watergate seemed like it had to result in Nixon’s ouster—but as Drew’s book shows, even days before the House Judiciary Committee voted on its historic articles of impeachment, key Republican members of Congress told her they weren’t sure they could really go through with it. As the tumultuous summer of 1974 played out, there were times when it even seemed, according to Drew’s sources, that Nixon might ride it out.

Second is that Congress remains the crucial check on the executive when dealing with presidential overreach—and all its hidden weaknesses, or strengths, will be revealed in such a crisis. House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino is in many ways the hero of Drew’s tale, and in particular she praises him for running the impeachment process with the explicit goal of capturing the Democratic-controlled committee’s center—and corralling enough Republican votes to convince the public a bipartisan process had been held. “These politicians rose to it,” she recalls of a moment quite different from the politics that would face a GOP-controlled Congress today in dealing with allegations involving a Republican president. “I don’t know if they’re capable of it again, but they really did.”

Finally, never underestimate presidential hubris—or just plain stupidity.

“My stupid theory of the case is that they’ve done such dumb things since he was inaugurated and the dumbest of all was that historic night when he fired the FBI director. Now, Nixon was a much smarter man than Trump is. Nixon read books. Nixon thought. Nixon thought about policy. You could have a coherent conversation with Richard Nixon,” Drew says. “But they both made the same mistake, which was firing your prosecutor. That was really stupid.”

Read the whole thing. I have to say that one of the most astonishing aspects of this Trump presidency to me is the idea that we may very well have two such outrageously corrupt presidents in my lifetime. The system survived one but I don't know if we'll make it through this one. It's almost as if this has happened on a continuum in which the polarization and sorting of the two parties inevitably would lead to sheer partisan power usurping the institutions that were built up through the centuries.