Dick Cheney and the lessons of Watergate

It will soon be 35 years since President Gerald Ford pardoned his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, on September 8, 1974. It was the first and only time in American history that such an extraordinary act took place. Historians have rendered a mixed judgment on the wisdom of such a move. Some believe it mined the goodwill Ford was shown following Nixon’s resignation and conclude it was a deciding factor in his loss in 1976 to Jimmy Carter. Others look back on Ford’s action as a gesture of healing that permitted America to move beyond the dark chapters of Watergate and Vietnam. I subscribe to both interpretations—it was not the best move in the short term, but we have come to recognize that, whatever Ford’s motives were at the time, a prolonged process may have been more traumatic for the nation. Among some of those who lived through the Watergate travails as politicians or political operatives, a third interpretation took root. To them, Ford’s pardon amounted to a weakening of the executive branch of the United States government. One of those who believed this was Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney.

In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress took steps to subject the president to greater scrutiny. Public financing of presidential campaigns was legislated and greater oversight measures of the executive branch were enacted. Additionally, the Supreme Court judgment authorizing the release of the White House tapes at the height of the crisis made a permanent dent in the argument of executive privilege before the courts. It is understandable then that proponents of a strong presidency operating in a dangerous world riddled with nuclear weapons would conclude that the office’s weakening was a risky proposition, especially when confronted with a superpower like the former Soviet Union. (One must not forget that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred a decade earlier than the Watergate Scandal.) Cheney, a disciple of Cold War politics, did not see these developments as a validation of the American system, which had correctly mandated the respect of its constitutional principles. Rather, he saw them as a power grab by Congress. Subsequent events during Cheney’s vice presidency would prove that this was the wrong lesson to be taken from Watergate.

The Watergate scandal was about more than a president participating in the cover-up of a burglary. It was about the systematic hijacking of the American Constitution by the country’s most powerful elected official. It involved illegal bugging, obstruction of justice, and illegal payouts to buy the silence of accused felons. It involved illegal operations directed by the White House (carried out by the so-called “Plumbers”) and the Committee To Re-elect The President. The attorney general of the day, John Mitchell, endorsed and supervised known criminal activity. Institutions of government like the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA were used to spy on and intimidate so-called enemies. It was without a doubt the greatest political scandal in American history. Jail sentences were handed out to some of Nixon’s closest advisors, including his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself was sure to face impeachment had he not resigned.

I remember when Ford pardoned Nixon. There was outrage across the United States. Without a pardon, Nixon would have in all likelihood faced jail time. Were it not for the Congress, the Supreme Court, the special prosecutors appointed by successive attorney generals, witnesses like John Dean (a co-conspirator who later confessed during the Senate Watergate hearings), men of integrity like Attorney General Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus who refused to obey Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, FBI agent Mark Felt (a.k.a Deep Throat), and the secret taping system at the White House, these felons masquerading as public servants would have certainly gotten away with this abhorrent violation of the American Constitution. Cheney saw all this but still believed that the post-Watergate reforms were excessive in reducing presidential power.

Cheney’s behaviour as vice president, in spite of his latest efforts to rewrite much of the account of the last eight years, seems to have been motivated by his crusade to regain some of that lost power and bring back what he considered constitutional balance to the American system of government. His closest aide, Scooter Libby, was found guilty of perjury and another close aide, David Addington, is still under a cloud of suspicion regarding the destruction of videotapes made by the CIA showing the use of torture. Cheney’s efforts in the dying days of the Bush Administration to obtain a pardon for Libby and his latest interview with Fox News prove beyond a doubt that the politics of fear related to national security trump the rule of law in Cheney`s book. When asked if he agreed that enhanced interrogation techniques could be justified even if interrogators knowingly broke the law, he replied he was “OK with it.” Scary.

The Wall Street Journal has put forward the possibility that Dick Cheney could be the GOP’s candidate for the presidency in 2012 should the threat to national security be the overriding issue. (Of course, this would mean a terrorist attack would have to take place on American soil before the next election.) The former vice president may be a man of talent, but the thought of Cheney as president would be scary to say the least, largely because he took away the wrong lesson from the Watergate scandal.