Are we watching Watergate the rerun?
Six months into Donald Trump’s already embattled presidency, references to the disgraced 37th president are everywhere. Jack Farrell’s sharp biography of Richard Nixon, years in the making, is a surprise bestseller. Former Watergate prosecutors are suddenly ubiquitous talking heads on cable TV. Google “Nixon and Trump” and more than 14 million references pop up, among them the recent cover of New York magazine, with a red-tied Trump photoshopped as a latter-day Nixon, flashing his trademark V-for-victory to illustrate a long Frank Rich story titled, “Nixon, Trump and How a Presidency Ends.”
Yes, Richard Nixon is already the inescapable analogy of the Trump era. And inevitably, the magazine articles and essays, radio talk shows and book lists all mention a single remarkable work: Elizabeth Drew’s Washington Journal.
Drew, at the time the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent and host of a weekly interview show on PBS, wrote the journal as a real-time diary of how the American political world handled the spiraling investigations of 1973 and 1974, and it unfolds as a true Washington thriller, with Congress and the courts, the White House and the political parties all pulled into the Watergate morass before it ends with Nixon’s impeachment-eve resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” may be more famous, but when it comes to understanding the consequences of Nixon’s reckless White House on America’s political institutions, Drew’s account is simply indispensable.
Four decades later, the book is experiencing an unlikely renaissance for the Trump era.
The Pulitzer-winning historian Jon Meacham hailed it in a recent New York Times article—complete with photograph of the now 81-year-old author—as the definitive account of “our long national nightmare,” praising her “spare, sane prose,” eye for telling detail and prescience in writing a book that seems so relevant today about “the wages of presidential hubris on a political culture that has not changed as much as one might think (or hope).” The Frank Rich New York essay argued that “to understand the melodrama” of Watergate as it actually played out, there is “no better guide” than Drew’s journal.
“Donald Trump,” as Drew told me when we spoke for this week’s Global Politico podcast, “has done wonders for that book.”
But is a book written at the dawn of the computing age really all that relevant to the rapidly spiraling Trump investigations and the convoluted revelations of the Russia 2016 election hacking scandal that already has, as Drew points out, “more characters than a Russian novel”? Are we right to analogize the tarnished ending of the two-term Nixon presidency—with its historic accomplishments, as well as sordid tapes and long list of criminal convictions—with a chaos-engulfed Trump presidency that has not even been able to staff up, has no significant legislative wins to its name and is already, at just six months in as of this week, the most unpopular in seven decades?
I asked Drew to ponder that question in our interview the other day at her Georgetown home (right next door, she pointed out, to where Nixon henchman H.R. Haldeman lived in the Watergate years, Nixon’s well-known hatred for “the Georgetown set” notwithstanding). A few months ago, she was wary of the Watergate analogies, and hesitant to encourage the Nixon comparisons and remarkably quick talk of impeachment.
But that was before Trump’s May firing of FBI director James Comey—which drew instant comparisons to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” and the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox—and before last week’s revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer. In an email, the president’s eldest son was offered damning info on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government “support for Mr. Trump,” a document immediately likened to the “smoking gun” tape that came right before Nixon’s resignation.
Today, Drew is much less wary of the Watergate parallel.
“I think we already have an obstruction of justice, certainly as an impeachable offense,” she tells me, referring to Comey’s firing and other Trump efforts that seemed designed to shut down the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russian hacking. Trump, she has already come to believe, “is a running crisis. The crisis is the president and his presidency.”
More broadly, Watergate, she reminds us, was “not a simple detective story” about a break-in; it was a “constitutional crisis” that involved “a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies—and he was very good at perceiving enemies.”
In its essence, that is what the Trump scandals will come down to as well, she believes. The big struggle in both cases, she says, is: “Can you hold a president accountable for the acts of his subordinates? We’re going to get to that question at some point in this.”
Yet the differences between then and now, as Drew lays them out, are pretty compelling.
Nixon was smarter, she argues. He read books and cared about policy.
Politics was not as mean.
Congress still had the capacity to do things in a bipartisan fashion.
Republican moderates were not an endangered species.
Twitter hadn’t corrupted the news cycle of the political class—or the attention span of the president himself.
Besides, she says, Watergate will always be its own sad chapter in our history. “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 that seem especially relevant as we wait to see what the Trump scandals will bring—and whether those who 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.”
Drew is clearly a critic of Trump, as she was of Nixon four decades ago. But she is not really a partisan in the sense of rooting for one of Washington’s two political teams. Rather, she’s a partisan of the process, of having a system that works and a Washington that finds a way to overcome an impasse between the branches of government as the founders envisioned they might have to.
Her liberal friends may have been talking about impeachment since right around noon on January 20, 2017, but not Elizabeth Drew, student of Watergate history.
“This cannot be a rush to judgment,” she tells me. “It’s a huge thing to try to decide about the viability of a president. That’s an awesome thing if you think about it and if anything is going to be done about whether he remains president, it has to be done slowly, carefully, with some bipartisanship.”
But can it? Will it?
“I don’t know,” Drew responds, “if we can get that in this day and age.”