Watergate Deja Vu

By Dr. Jill Edy 

Forty five years ago last week, five burglars broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, DC.

Their arrest kicked off a series of events that, a little more than two years later, resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States. Watergate is a part of American history, but it’s also a kind of folk tale that gets told and retold in popular media, and it is part of the collective memory that Americans use to make sense of current events. Dozens of scandals that followed became “gates,” from “Billygate,” which involved President Jimmy Carter’s brother acting as a foreign agent for the Libyans in 1980, to “deflategate, which involved underinflated footballs in a 2015 NFL playoff game.

These days, the conversation has turned a little more serious. President Donald Trump’s handling of the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possibility that members of his campaign colluded with the Russians has invoked for some the memory of Watergate. That collective memory has powerfully shaped news coverage of the investigation since FBI Director James Comey was fired on May 9.

Most of the news stories assume that the viewers or readers will see the parallels to Watergate, but more than 60 percent of Americans living today were under the age of 10 when President Richard Nixon resigned. Caught between memory and history and living in a time when dozens of scandals have been given the suffix “gate,” these younger generations may have trouble sorting out whether there really are parallels between the present and the past or whether this is just hype. Here are a few key connections.

Both men were accused of subverting democracy by “cheating” during the election process:

  • Trump’s campaign is accused of colluding with Russian interests to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
  • Nixon’s staff was accused of authorizing a break-in at Democratic National Headquarters during the 1972 presidential campaign in order to bug the office, presumably so his re-election campaign could hear about the Democrats’ campaign strategy.

Both men reviled the media:

  • Trump: "As you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
  • Nixon:  “Also, never forget. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.”

Both men fired the person running the investigation:

  • Trump fired Comey, who led the investigation into possible Russian interference in the election. Congress appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the matter. Last week, rumors surfaced that Trump might fire him.
  • Nixon ordered the U.S. Attorney General to fire the special counsel investigating Watergate. The Attorney General refused and resigned, as did the Deputy Attorney General. The Solicitor General, the next in the line of succession, fired the special counsel. This event is known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Both men came under greater suspicion for their handling of the investigation than for the incident that sparked it:

  • Currently available accounts indicate Trump was not under investigation for colluding with the Russians. However, his own recent Twitter posts suggest he may now be under investigation for attempting to thwart the investigation into his campaign and its relationship with the Russians.
  • In Nixon’s case, no evidence ever emerged he authorized the break in. Instead, evidence showed that he had been involved in attempts to thwart the investigation into the White Houses’ involvement, and it was this evidence that triggered his resignation.

America was divided:

  • Since the turn of the 21st century, the ideological gap between liberals and conservatives, both in the government and in the public, has grown larger and larger.
  • In the early 1970s, the U.S. was deeply divided over the Vietnam War and over controversial laws that implemented the sweeping civil rights legislation of the late 1960s, such as school busing programs, affirmative action, and Title IX.  

Parallels are most definitely not evidence of wrongdoing, but they do offer some insight into why the story of the Russia investigation is unfolding in the way it is in the press and what sets off the media frenzies. When Trump tweeted that Comey had better hope there were no tapes, he sparked a firestorm of coverage because Nixon’s tapes of his private White House conversations were the key to his downfall. When Trump lashed out at Comey for leaking information about their conversations, he may have been pushing back against accusations that he himself had leaked classified information to visiting Russian officials. However, he set off another uproar because Nixon’s obsession with leaks was a key precursor of his later illegal behavior. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump administration officials declined to answer questions before the Senate intelligence committee because the president might want to assert executive privilege to keep conversations private, it harkened back to Nixon’s assertion of executive privilege in refusing to release the tapes. Now that news organizations are looking for parallels, whenever Trump officials deal with the Russian investigation in ways that seem similar to Watergate, they will only fan the flames.

Dr. Jill A. Edy is an Associate Professor who specializes in the study of media and politics. She earned her Ph.D. at Northwestern University (1998), her M.A. at Leicester University in the U.K., and her B.A. at The George Washington University.

Dr. Edy is best known for her research on how the public’s shared memory of events is created and maintained through mass media. In her book, Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest (2006), she studied whether shared memories of 1960s social protests had evolved. In more recent work, she has explored how shared memory affects news coverage of current events and examined its potential to influence political decision making. Her work has appeared in a variety of communication, journalism, and political science journals including: Journal of Communication, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, American Journal of Political Science,andJournal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

Dr. Edy typically teaches seminars in political communication, public opinion, and media. She also occasionally teaches the core course in communication theory (2713) and the senior capstone class (4713). At the graduate level, her courses include the political communication seminar and qualitative methods.