A different version of this article appeared in The New Republic on May 16th.
And so it seems we do have Dick Nixon to kick around some more.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, Jr., once again and in force, the shade with the five-o-clock shadow returned to haunt the political stage. “It’s going to be Trumpgate, it’s going to be Comeygate, it’s going to be FBI-gate, it’s going to be something-gate,” the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward crowed the next day. “It’s going to be…it’s going to be…it’s going to be,” the one-time-kid-reporter on the Nixon beat, Woodward, chanted like a curse and a promise. Still others have recommended Kremlingate and Flynngate.
Countless times since he entered the Republican presidential primary in 2015, Trump has been likened to Richard Nixon. Once again, Nixon’s ghost appears as the measure for presidential connivance, corruption and cover-up. The clumsiness and arrogance. The brazenness and myopic desperation. The crime and the cover-up. Old familiar faces have returned to the media scene: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, David Gergen, John Dean, Ed Cox, Roger Stone, Pat Buchanan. And so too the Nixon biographers: Garry Wills, Evan Thomas, Kevin Mattson, Rick Perlstein, Douglas Brinkley and, most recently, John Farrell. They have all returned center stage to assess whether Trump’s misconduct qualifies as Nixonian.
Once again the nation waits to see if partisan loyalty will hold or if Republicans will turn on their long-embattled president. Once again, through firing and recusal, the layers of the federal government peel back as deputies and their deputies—the Rosensteins and Rukelshauses—become household names. Once again murmurs of grand-jury subpoenas grow louder. Trump’s firing of Comey, and his subsequent threatening tweet implying he secretly recorded their conversations, has redounded on the president’s head with a flood of new Nixonian comparison and invective. (In response to this latest turn, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace coined a new epithet: Tapegate.)
But for all of the trafficking in Nixonian allusion, does Trump’s behavior measure up—or rather, down—to Nixon’s? Is Trump due for impeachment or on the brink of resigning? That is, are we witnessing a new Watergate, the undoing of another American president? Is it now or has it ever been a -gate? Bestowing the –gate label suggests a story that we are not quite sure we are ready to write. For the Nixonian suffix implies a prediction that this scandal will be Trump’s exposure and ruin. A Watergate comparison is a cudgel, a way of cutting a leader like Trump down to size, to forecast his demise. It is, by the light of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, to outline the finite shape of the president’s seemingly boundless misrule by declaring that he is a threat as great as Nixon, and just as fallible.
Political scientists have calculated that between 1972 and 2008, 87 presidential scandals occurred or one every five months: Benghazi, the targeting of Tea-Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service, yellow cake in Niger, torture in Abu Ghraib, the outing of Valerie Plame, Swift-boating, the Lewinsky Affair, Whitewater, Willie Horton, Iran-Contra, Billy Carter and Bert Lance, the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre, phony claims of shelling in the Gulf of Tonkin, wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bay of Pigs, the trumped-up Soviet missile gap, vote-stuffing in Chicago, court-packing in the Supreme, to name a few. And yet Watergate has overshadowed passing comparisons to this waste-basketful of presidential transgressions. No other presidential indiscretion has lived up to (or down to) Nixon’s particularly pungent political violations of his office’s oath. No other president has been forced to resign. So that when presidential scandal hits, the comparisons are inevitably to Nixon, to Nixon and, when in doubt, to Nixon.
To appreciate the omnipresence of Nixon’s crimes and resignation in the American political imagination, let us review the label of his misdeed “Watergate” and what linguists call its semantic broadening. Semantic broadening occurs when a word takes on additional meanings, most often toward the more generic or to an entity with an analogous trait. For example, the word “mouse,” a specific type of rodent, came also to refer to rodents more generically, to a timid person, to the handheld device for remotely controlling a computer’s cursor and now to the definitely un-rodent-like trackpad on a laptop.
Just so, the word “Watergate” has broadened in meaning. “Watergate” began as the name of a popular office and residential complex for, mainly, politicos, just off the Potomac River in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC, next to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was named for the nearby, large water gate between the Potomac and the Ohio and Chesapeake canals. Then, in 1972, “Watergate” became a stand-in for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the office complex. The scene-of-the-crime became the name of the crime. However within a year, “Watergate” had also become shorthand for the cover-up of that burglary, for the scandal and whoop-la surrounding the burglary and cover-up, then broadening to include Nixon’s entire portfolio of crimes and dirty-trickery, then a reference to an entire category of political crime and cover-up, then to a category of any crime and cover-up especially if it entailed corruption, covert surveillance, a series of interlocking misdeeds and a media circus.
This multi-definitional malleability would prove not a limitation but an asset for the staying-power and for the seemingly endless associative reinvention and reinvigoration of “Watergate”. (Just so its progenitor, as the New York Times described in its 1994 Nixon obituary: “again and again, Mr. Nixon reinvented himself-so much so that people talked and wrote about ‘the new Nixon’ and ‘the new, new Nixon.’”)
As one senior editor for the Oxford English Dictionary wrote, “Watergate…reshaped the language of scandal and controversy,” itself. For “-gate,” the verbal ending of Nixon’s high crime, became the standard label, not quite the synonym but the suffix to denote scandal. There was Envelopegate at the Oscars, Golden-Showergate in the 35-page dossier, E-mailgate in the Hillary Clinton campaign, Pizzagate in the minds of the alt-right, Gamergate in the culture of video games, Nannygate in Canada, Deflategate, Bountygate and Spygate in the NFL, Sonicsgate in the NBA, Bridgegate in New Jersey, Nipplegate at the Super Bowl, Rathergate at CBS, Bibigate in Israel and Troopergate in Arkansas, New York and Alaska, to name a few. Aiding its rise to colloquiality, the definitive and self-contained “–gate” bore none of the spelling and pronunciation ambiguities of far trickier endings like “–iary” or “–ious” or “ence.” After all, is it “-ible” or “-able” (or “eable”)? “-ize” or “-ise”? Like “-bot” or “-dom,” “-gate” offers an easy-to-add extension, a strong final stroke of clear linguistic resolution.
“It is as if a scandal without an agreed-upon label lacks the identity that turns a story into history,” hypothesized the former Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist and maestro of –gate-keeping William Safire. For a ritual of –gate sanctioning developed, of judging whether a scandal was –gate-worthy. This –gate’ing game lifted up “Watergate” as the standard while, oftentimes, diminishing Nixon’s misdeeds through association to far less weighty even silly affairs. As early as April 1979 Safire worried, “the excessive use of this suffix [wa]s becoming a linguistic gategate.”
A similar phenomenon played out in Italy with the suffix –opoli, beginning in 1992 when a bribe (tangent) scandal across Italy between politicians and businessmen became known as Tangentopoli. –Opoli (traditionally the suffix of a city like “-ville” or “-burg”) became a suffix, like –gate, attached to various affairs to denote scandal. And yet, even in Italy, Calciopoli—the name for a 2006 football scandal involving top clubs and payouts to crooked referees—goes often by the name Calciogate.
Moreover, crucial to a “Watergate” scandal is the suggestion that, as with Nixon’s, the conspiracy will not hold, truth outs, and it proves to be the assailant’s undoing. For “Watergate” has also become synonymous with the gotcha and the smoking gun, the self-inflicting incompetency of a third-rate burglary and the bumbling hubris of power corrupted. Such is the morality tale embedded in the “Watergate” mythos. It is the story of a (mis-)step too far, the last straw and the cascade of repercussions. To affix the label of “Watergate” to a crime is to project, not always accurately, the ultimate ruination (and public humiliation) of the criminal. As Dean asserted in 1973, “the truth always emerges.” Just so, in 1994, liberal commentators blasted Safire for “Watergating” Clinton over his shady Whitewater real estate deal: referring to the episode as “Whitewatergate,” comparing it to Nixon’s “cover-ups,” “stonewalling” and “conspiracies” and thereby, specifically, for prematurely predicting Clinton’s demise.
In this way, Nixon, the ringleader of the original Watergate scandal, has become the measure of iniquity gone too far. He is the bar to judge political malfeasance, the intolerableness of the illegality, the length of transgression that stretches presidential prerogative a rung too many so as to demand resignation. When political and especially presidential misconduct is committed, the corpse of Nixon’s crimes are, once again, exhumed. They are, once again, brought to life for the reviewing stand (flanked by the patron inquisitors Woodward and Bernstein) so that we may compare and contrast and compare. And if Reagan’s or Clinton’s or W.’s or Trump’s misdeeds match Nixon’s then, it is concluded, Reagan or Clinton or W. or Trump, like Nixon, deserves an ousting.
Just so in August 1998 Woodward and Bernstein appeared on Meet the Press to assert categorically to host Tim Russert that Clinton’s Lewinsky affair (“Zippergate”) was, as Woodward judged, “not something of [Watergate’s] magnitude” and, as a “chief accuser,” Lewinsky was no Dean. Bernstein added, “this is about the private consensual sexual life of the President. Watergate…was about a vast and pervasive abuse of power.” By contrast, in 2004 Dean wrote a book judging President George W. Bush’s term Worse than Watergate, painting the White House as a secretive, insular cabal of lying liars with Vice President Dick Cheney, once the deputy to then-vice-president Ford, as the bridge between venal regimes.
This year the Trump-Nixon comparisons have flowed steadily. Farrell’s recently published and highly praised biography, Richard Nixon: The Life, was no doubt largely planned and researched far before Trump dipped his toe into the political-press pool. Farrell’s account was meant to be a sympathetic if quite critical portrait. But instead, asked over and over for presidential comparisons on his press tour, Farrell has been added to the list as the latest and one of the foremost Nixon-Trump analogists. As the USA Today headlined its review of Farrell’s 752-page account of Nixon’s life: “New Bio: Why Richard Nixon Matters in the Trump Era.”
Key are the ever-lauded Woodward and Bernstein, themselves. That is, inherent in a Watergate tale is a pivotal, persistent and heroic press. The oft-commemorated protagonists of the Watergate saga are not the Republican Congressmen who broke party-lines to threaten impeachment, not the three Congressional investigatory committees, not the countless and faceless staffers who toiled untold hours for those committees and not the FBI and its agents whom Nixon was so intent to stop. The central protagonists are not remembered as the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus whose resignations during the Saturday Night Massacre catalyzed the investigation, not Cox’s replacement Leon Jaworski and his team of lawyers who carried out the prosecution, not U.S. District Judge John Sirica and his 12 grand jury members who voted unanimously to force Nixon to hand over nine of his secret tape recordings, not the countless “leakers” (aside from Deep Throat) who filled newspaper columns with insider information nor Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard, who originally found the duct tape left by the burglars on the door lock of the Democrats’ office.
To a lesser extent, whistleblowers like Deep Throat and Dean have continued to be hailed in the Watergate story for their collaborating. To his great credit, number two on Bernstein’s list of journalistic suggestions at the WHC dinner was the importance of sources: “to listen and empathize with…[,] not objectify simply as the means to get a story.” For the felling of a conspiracy on the scale of a Watergate does, after all, take a village.
And yet, in the popular memory of Watergate, journalists (ya know, those guys Redford and Hoffman played) remain the heroic figures, the rag-tag duo of Davids who felled the Goliathian Nixon administration. All the President’s Men was not The Wire or Norma Rae or Selma celebrating police detectives or union workers or a social movement. It was not celebrating the superhero-stylings of a secret agent like 24 and certainly not reifying the political force of moral suasion like The West Wing. To traffic in the language of Watergate is to place implicitly one’s hopes in a fierce free press as the last, lead detective and prosecutor. –Gate’ing has become a rallying cry for robust reportage.
Even before what’s been called Trump’s Tuesday Night Massacre, parallels were being drawn. It was hard to miss the allusion amidst the hallelujahs to the first amendment at the latest White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Who filled the president’s absence as the keynote or at least most notable guests but the original Watergate sleuths of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein. Seated on opposite flanks of the podium, as their mutual distaste seems never to abate, they were the stars of the night in the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom.
As a member of the Nixon generation, Bernstein gave a list of instructions for the next generation of journalists, the Trump generation, on how to (un)cover the next Watergate. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said in his speech, clearly identifying where he believed the bones were buried and by whom. “And,” he added, “when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.” In turn, Woodward extolled the lesson that a reporter must “not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Theirs was a call-to-arms to the media, providing a path for writing a new Watergate. It was a night with one looming lesson. To fell another president, to earn an entry in the pantheon of presidential scandal, to get another -gate, the press would have to hold the shining light. Bernstein finished with advice he learned all those years ago at the Washington Post, not on how to do top-notch reporting, but, specifically, on how to cover a conspiracy, the next Watergate: “Yes, follow the money but follow, also, the lies.”