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Veja, Brazil

Obama, Forward, IV (Oh Watergate!)

By Caio Blinder

Translated By Sarah Nissen

23 May 2013

Edited by Bora Mici

Brazil - Veja - Original Article (Portuguese)

Wednesday’s column was another series on Obama — forward — dealing with the cliché curse of the second term. With the scandals in the U.S. government, the inevitable cliché grew “worse than Watergate.” This, by the way, was the title of a 2004 book by John Dean, denouncing the scandalous government of George W. Bush.

John Dean — does the name ring a bell? He was a legal adviser to President Richard Nixon, a conspirator in the Watergate case, who had his prison punishment reduced to four months in exchange for cooperating with the prosecutor’s office. Dean is still condemned for self-flagellation.

There is a general condemnation for abuse of the cliché “worse than Watergate.” Lou Cannon, journalist and biographer for Ronald Reagan, had a rule when he covered the White House for The Washington Post — the newspaper of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He hung up the phone on any anonymous person guaranteed to have revelations that might make Watergate seem like a picnic.

Obviously, we still do not know if the controversies that devastated Barack Obama will be a picnic or not. But it is important not to get distracted with hyperbole. The constant use of the cliché “worse than Watergate” could remove meaning from the analogy. When someone with the potential to twist the story or incriminate the government cries "Watergate" from the outset of a controversy, everything that happens afterward, alongside the investigations, could even seem less spectacular.

The Work of Nixon

Before hasty analogies, it is worth knowing the essentials about Watergate, the mother of all “gates.” There are millions of books on the subject, not to mention articles. But we are going to cut to the chase with what Woodward and Bernstein — the two young reporters that disclosed the scandal — wrote in an article titled “40 Years After Watergate, Nixon Was Far Worse Than We Thought” in The Washington Post in 2012 in celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the invasion (June 17, 1972) of the site of the Democratic Party in the Watergate building in Washington. The following were among their points:

1) Nixon personally approved a plan authorizing the CIA, FBI and military intelligence community to intensify the electronic surveillance of people identified as threats to domestic security.
2) The “plumbers” unit involved in the invasion of the site of the Democratic Party had a criminal handbook. Among their actions was the invasion of the office of the analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who would leak the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War to The New York Times. The anti-Semitic Nixon told tax evaluator Bob Haldeman: “You can't let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it.” Furthermore, Nixon's Jewish national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, demanded that the FBI spy on 17 journalists and advisers in the White House without court approval.
3) Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, approved a $250,000 criminal plan to spy on and sabotage Democratic candidates in the 1972 election, using wiretapping and forced entry with the participation of 50 people.
4) Nixon approved and directed the criminal conspiracy to attempt to cover his own role in the scandals branded with the expression Watergate.

Woodward — who, unlike Carl Bernstein, continues to be a very important journalist — is recruited incessantly these days to talk about what is happening with the Obama government in cases like the IRS' intimidation of conservative groups — also done by Nixon and other presidents in relation to adversaries — the response to the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and the curtailment of reporters and government workers that leaked information. Woodward created his own cliché: None of this is like the Watergate scandal yet, but something Nixon-like exists in Obama.


Carl Cannon, the son of Lou, editor of the website RealClearPolitics, also sees Nixonian components in Obama: in the self-commiseration, Manicheism and disdain for the investigative role and impartiality of the media. Cannon recognizes that so far there is no evidence connecting Obama or anybody under his command to illicit activities, but his absence of criminality is not the only test for him.

During the IRS scandal, Cannon repeats that there is no evidence that Obama unleashed the bureaucracy on his opponents, like Nixon did, but with that he asks: After years of comparing Republicans in Congress to terrorists and characterizing the tea party as racist and extremist, what was the message sent by the president? In Cannon’s expression, this is also [in the realm of] “Nixonland.” OK — I can even accept the idea of political venality, but we are not in criminal territory yet.

Another legacy of Watergate is the cliché that "the cover-up is worse than the crime." In these terms, the revelation that someone from the more intimate circle of power in the White House knew before the last elections of Nov. 6 — when Obama got re-elected — that the Department of the Treasury was intimidating conservative groups, would evidently be explosive.

A memorable cliché of audiences in the Senate about Watergate was Sen. Howard Baker’s, R-Tenn., question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Until then ...



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