Watergate: A New History

Watergate: A New History – Garrett M. Graff

Following the attack on the Capitol building in January of 2021, Donald Trump suffered impeachment for a second time in his lone presidential term. Shortly after, a committee was established to look into his role – as well as that of others – in inciting his supporters to storm Washington hoping to overturn a lawfully decided election.

This is only one of the many scandals that Trump weathered during his four years in office. Yet, he held on until the very end when he was thankfully voted out by the American people. Reasonably, he could (or should) have resigned on a handful of occasions. So why didn’t he? Is the era of politicians resigning a thing of the past? Trump has gone on record in vaguely saying he “learned a lot” from former US President Richard Nixon. What was he alluding to? Was it policy? Or did he see Nixon’s 1974 resignation as “weakness”?

Author Garrett M. Graff travels back in time to take all that has been reported, uncovered and known about the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal to repackage it into something of a complete history. While I had a basic understanding of the break in and the Democratic Party office inside the Watergate Hotel, what I was not aware of is just how many scandals Nixon had endured up to that point.

The incompetent nature of the Watergate operation was likely due to a politician who felt like he could basically get away with murder. And who could blame him? The twenty-four hour news cycle didn’t exist then, so each scandal that tore its way through Nixon’s orbit was not front-and-centre all hours of the day. Without distraction, Nixon was able to achieve unprecedented popularity leading to him sweeping the 1972 federal election. So what happened?

Garrett M. Graff notes that Nixon was incomprehensibly paranoid. He didn’t trust anyone – even members of his inner circle. He kept meticulous records of every phone call, in-person discussion and correspondence that went through the Oval Office; something that he felt would only protect him, but ultimately became his downfall when the existence of audio recordings became known. Suddenly it became less about prosecuting those who committed the break-in and more about what did Nixon know? And when did he know it?

To give you an idea of how comprehensive Graff’s research is, just under half of the book’s massive page count is reserved for its bibliography. I’ll leave it to those who are true Watergate scholars to judge the author’s success in presenting all the key factors and players, but I cannot imagine needing further understanding of what occurred before, on, and after June 17, 1972.

Should Nixon have resigned? Could he have weathered this storm? It’s unlikely. While the country was certainly divided during Nixon’s time in power (protests were as frequent in the late 60s/early 70s as they were at the height of Trump’s presidency in 2020), politicians seemed to have more of a moral conscience then rather than now (for the most part). As the scandal persisted into 1974, Nixon was facing a legitimate threat of impeachment in both the house and the senate and rather than hurt the office of the presidency, Nixon resigned in an effort to save face. The political divide in America today is likely fractured beyond belief with politicians blindly voting along party lines – something that saved Trump on two separate occasions from impeachment.

Garrett M. Graff’s Watergate is an important book that takes the reader back to a moment in time where the seeds of the modern Republican party were planted. While Reagan would eventually harvest those crops, it was Trump who would come up with a particular form of bullshit to fertilize a higher, more plentiful yield.

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