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EDITORIAL: Obama’s Watergate flashback

An excerpt from ‘Breach of Faith’ by Theodore H. White, 1975

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President Nixon waves goodbye to staff members outside the White House after resigning on Aug. 9, 1974. Mr. Felt tipped off reporters to the Watergate scandal that toppled Mr. Nixon.

They could not understand the essential balance there must always be in large affairs between cynicism and suspicion on the one hand and faith and trust on the other. A successful politician must, inescapably, be something of a hypocrite, promising all to all, knowing that, if elected, he must inevitably sacrifice the interests of some for others. But a man in government must know when to choose trust and faith over political need. If exposure of his acts threatens to contradict his words, he must renounce his acts and keep his word because the people must trust his words at whatever cost - or he cannot govern. In the presidency, where the words are the words of a High Priest, it is essential to recognize the moment for truth.

That moment came first for [President] Richard Nixon on June 20, 1972, when he and [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman discussed the lawless break-in at Watergate during the previous weekend. The lost clue in the detective-story “whodunit” still remains the deliberate erasure of 18-and-a-half minutes of that morning’s conversation. Did they recognize the difference between what the partisan politics of the campaign required and what the responsibility of the presidency required? Did they measure the extent of their gamble? The two top men of the administration must at least have exchanged surmises as to how the break-in came about and what they should do about it. By June 23, three days later, came a clear act of obstruction of justice - the attempt to use the CIA to halt the FBI’s investigation of the crime. Straining as hard as imagination permitted, and if one drew on no other evidence, one could persuade one’s self from the transcript of the conversation that here were two malicious politicians simply playing dirty tricks without any awareness of what government is supposed to mean. …

By early April of 1973, [the president] could no longer even make himself appear unwitting. In March, he had come under blackmail and had begun to learn all the details of the bungled cover-up. This pained his neat mind, for the cover-up was grotesquely mismanaged, hilariously inefficient, his white-collar managers proving themselves hideously incompetent at what Mafiosi could do skillfully. Not only that: By April 1973, the news system had the story in raw outline, by May in detail, and by midsummer the Ervin Committee had put face, flesh and voice to the drama in public. Yet Nixon persisted in concealment. And it was his persistence in the cover-up that gave the motor energy to the charges of obstruction of justice, Article I of impeachment.

This persistence in the cover-up led to drama of a greater order - the search for evidence. And when the evidence, the tapes and the internal White House memoranda began to unfold, they revealed a more shattering hidden story: that of abuse of power. … If such practices had occurred before, they had occurred secretly. Now they were public. If they were to be accepted publicly and not repudiated, then all future presidents would be free to break the same laws.

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