“Watergate” was once just a Washington office complex.
But since the 1970s, the word has signaled a complex Washington political scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Now the name represents an era itself, and the -gate suffix surfaces nearly any time a new wrongdoing, of whatever magnitude, emerges.
There’s no catchy, catchall word yet to describe this era, or what may be its defining political scandal — much more is needed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to determine that.
Especially because, so far, something else is missing from today’s narrative: clarity and closure. At least that’s the thought from a central, even seminal, figure from both eras: journalist Bob Woodward.
“In the extraordinary case of Watergate, two things occurred that are central,” Woodward said in an interview. “There was clarity, because of John Dean and all the witnesses and the tapes, that this was a criminal president, Nixon. And there was closure: he resigned.”
Woodward, who will be interviewed by MPR’s Kerri Miller in an event presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust on Dec. 3 at the State Theatre, said the theatrical backdrop of Dean’s televised testimony was key to Watergate’s clarity.
“In the Nixon case they had John Dean, the White House counsel, testifying on national television for four days straight on all the meetings and the order from Nixon on the coverup and the payment of hush money and a real long list of illegal activities, and they had the tapes. And I don’t know whether Mueller is going to have a narrator or storytelling witness like Dean,” said Woodward, who added that after talking to prosecutors of public corruption cases it’s clear having a narrator is “central.”
In Watergate, Woodward continued, “If you just have the tapes in the Nixon case it wouldn’t have been as convincing as it was to all the Republicans on the impeachment investigation. But what Dean was able to do is explain not only what happened but talk about motive and make it clear his own motive was corrupt, to obstruct justice, and that that was Nixon’s motive.”
Such a narrative, and narrator, may or may not emerge from the Mueller investigation. “I remain intrigued, but not convinced it’s going to blow the lid off the Trump presidency,” Woodward said. “But should that happen, I won’t be surprised.”
The Trump presidency is the subject of Woodward’s latest bestselling book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.” It’s the type of deep dive Woodward is noted for, and one he notes is increasingly rare among reporters operating in a sped-up media environment.
“It would be easier to describe the creation of the universe” than explain the exponential differences between the two media eras, Woodward said. “Impatience and speed now drive everything. When we were working on the Watergate story we could work for weeks on a story. Now if you have a tip somebody will be in your office saying, ‘Can we get it on the internet by noon?’ And so there’s significantly less in-depth reporting, and I think that’s a big mistake.”
It’s an error Woodward didn’t want to make writing about this White House. “I disengaged in doing this book on Trump,” he said, significantly scaling back his writing for the Washington Post as well as TV appearances, a process he said was a “powerful psychological release” that allowed him not to “step back, but step-in” to the story.
Press-presidential relations may be at an all-time low, especially with Trump labeling some elements of the news media as enemies of the people. But Nixon, too, “worked hard to make the conduct of the media the issue; Carl [Bernstein] and I, we were called ‘character assassins,’ and that we were making things up and didn’t have the sources and so forth. Then you go back and look at our coverage, it was actually quite conservative, quite restrained” now that “we now know Watergate was much larger.”
While there are similarities between the two eras, there are sharp departures, too. In February 1973, the vote on setting up a Watergate investigation was 77-0 in the Senate, said Woodward, who continued, “You couldn’t get 77-0 something passed in the Senate these days even to say ‘Let’s keep the colors in the flag red, white and blue.”
And, added Woodward, while Nixon enlisted top aides in his wrongdoing, with Trump “I found many of the aides resisted some of his ideas, they’re stealing documents off his desk, they’re resistant to some of his claims” on national defense and other policy matters.
While the Mueller investigation may indeed define this political era, Woodward said that for now “the large question for me about Trump is about what he does, and my summation is it’s a policy casino; he’s gambling on all these issues about China and the tariffs, or the relationship with the Saudis or North Korea, or racially coded statements and attitudes, or about the new NAFTA. And he’s got some ideas — he just has them in his head and information and facts won’t change what he concludes by and large, and so this is a time to be worried and wake up to what’s going on. I don’t come at this as a partisan at all. I was really surprised.”
“In the end,” Woodward concluded, “I suspect, unless there’s a series of bombshells from Mueller, which there may be, Trump may be remembered for these policy decisions, either right or wrong, but huge gambles in my view.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.