Did the Left Think Watergate Was a Distraction?

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Images cropped from Edmund S. Valtman’s caricature of Richard Nixon, courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

As Irving Howe, cofounder and longtime editor of the leftist magazine Dissent, beheld the spectacle of the Senate Watergate hearings, he found himself—“a little surprisingly,” he wrote—“assailed by sentiments of patriotic indignation.” Despite decades of pillorying corporate capitalism and the military-industrial complex, Howe had apparently held onto some sort of belief that the United States was “humanity’s ‘last, best hope.’” And all the crooked doings of the White House, newly unearthed and brought before the public eye—it was enough to gall even an old-fashioned Jewish socialist.[efn_note]Irving Howe, “Watergate: The Z Connection,” Dissent (Summer 1973).[/efn_note]

The Left today (and by the “Left” I don’t mean liberals or Democrats but self-described socialists) is far less distraught by the daily trickle of information regarding a possible conspiracy between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the presidential election of 2016. Glenn Greenwald recently published a listicle of “The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Media Failures on the Trump-Russia Story,” glorying in every misstep by the mainstream center-left press. The hosts of the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House write in their new book that after the 2016 election, centrist liberals “went insane” with “Infowars-level” conspiracy theories and “James Bond” fantasies of the Kremlin.[efn_note]Glenn Greenwald, “The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Media Failures on the Trump-Russia Story,” The Intercept, Jan. 20, 2019; The Chapo Guide to the Revolution: A Manifesto against Logic, Facts, and Reason (New York: Touchstone, 2018), chap. 2.[/efn_note]

In short, leftists tend to be skeptical of the “Russiagate” theory and suspicious of those pursuing it. They fear the emergence of a sort of neo-McCarthyism or even a new Cold War; they are reluctant to accept US intelligence findings at face value; and they worry the scandal is a distraction, diverting energy that could be used to bring about radical political change.[efn_note]For a few more examples of this rhetoric, see the following articles in Jacobin: Daniel Denvir, “The Psychology of Russiagate: An Interview with Glenn Greenwald,” April 17, 2018; Corey Robin, “The Question of Russia and the Left,” July 23, 2018; and Seth Ackerman, “Russiagate Can’t End Well for the Left,” July 24, 2018. Also see Robert Wright’s interview with Michael Tracey on Bloggingheads, Jan. 25, 2019.[/efn_note]

Did the Left feel the same way about Watergate (before socialism was cool, before dirtbag podcasting and rose emojis) as it does today about Russia? Many did, and thought the great presidential scandal of their day was a distraction, a nothingburger; but this skepticism was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today. Most leftists had an easy time integrating Watergate into their critiques of capitalism and empire, and they thought the scandal had real political value.[efn_note]For an analysis of leftist attitudes towards Nixon, touching on some of the same points I’m making, see David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), chap. 3.[/efn_note]

The difference between then and now is striking, and there is no single explanation. A major factor, though, is that George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1972 had a very different texture from Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. While the 1970s Left positioned itself fairly effortlessly in opposition to Nixon, today’s Left sees the president as a less useful foil than, well, the Democrat he defeated. The Left’s embrace of Watergate and, today, its suspicion of Russiagate—they both make political sense.

To be clear, the Left had its share of concerns about the politics of Watergate, though very few if any were genuinely skeptical that the scandal occurred. Their main fear was that the crimes committed by Nixon and his cronies were so melodramatic, so cartoonish, that they would distract Americans from the system that made Watergate possible in the first place. Michael Harrington worried (nine years before he founded DSA) “that we will become so fascinated by this blundered villainy that we will lose sight of the deeper level of corruption”—that is, the legal “collusion” between corporations and the public sector.[efn_note]Michael Harrington, “Watergate: On Politics & Money,” Dissent (Summer 1973).[/efn_note]

And wasn’t it a little cynical for the establishment to get up in arms about Watergate when it had let worse crimes pass without note? The Nixon dirty-tricks team’s meddling in the Democratic primary paled in comparison to the ongoing persecution of antiwar and civil rights activists by Republican and Democratic administrations. Noam Chomsky observed that the mainstream press seemed relieved Henry Kissinger was not involved in Watergate, as if the hands of a man responsible for thousands of deaths in Southeast Asia could possibly be clean.[efn_note]Noam Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 20, 1973.[/efn_note]

Indeed, many wondered why Congress was more interested in impeaching Nixon for Watergate than for his illegal bombing operations in Cambodia and Laos. “After supporting the President while he lied about a war,” noted a writer for Dissent, “they would consider impeaching him for lying about a break-in.” Of course, Watergate could be far more easily pinned on a single Republican administration than the chaos of Vietnam. And as Chomsky pointed out, Congress was far more outraged by the secrecy of the bombing than the bombing itself. If only Nixon had first asked for their rubber stamp of approval, so that he could have bombed those countries properly![efn_note]Leo P. Ribuffo, “Watergate & Mugwumps,” Dissent (Winter 1974); Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View.”[/efn_note]

In short, the true priorities of the establishment were belied by their narrow focus on Watergate. “The exposures of the past several months,” Chomsky wrote in September 1973, “are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder Inc. were also cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.”[efn_note]Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View.”[/efn_note]

Nevertheless, the Left generally thought Watergate was a unique opportunity to educate the American people and initiate substantive reforms. They hoped the scandal would help to curb American empire and the power of the presidency, and they believed it had exposed to the American people just how much capitalism had poisoned the project of democracy.

The term “imperial presidency” was newly in vogue thanks to the publication of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s book with that title. Since World War II, and especially during the Cold War, the presidency had grown ever more powerful and unaccountable, bordering on Caeserism—which, after all, took hold of the ancient Roman republic without ever violating its constitution. The outlook was especially grim in the spring of 1973. Nixon had won re-election by a landslide, carrying every state but Massachusetts and eating away at much of the Democratic coalition. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho negotiated peace in Vietnam, and the last US troops were withdrawn by March. Nixon’s Gallup approval rating reached a record high (for him) of 66%, and in fact it hadn’t dipped below 50% for more than a year.[efn_note]See, for example, I. F. Stone’s prognosis in “Can Congress Stop the President?,” New York Review of Books, April 19, 1973.[/efn_note]

The veteran journalist I. F. Stone feared Nixon would leverage his electoral mandate and the official peace in Vietnam to bolster and expand American empire—pouring billions of dollars into military aid for South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and effectively creating a “US protectorate in East Asia.” And if the Thieu regime in South Vietnam were to fall, Stone wasn’t so sure Nixon wouldn’t start bombing again.[efn_note]I. F. Stone, “Toward a Third Indochina War,” New York Review of Books, March 8, 1973.[/efn_note]

Stone and others were therefore delighted to see the Watergate scandal explode in the late spring and summer of 1973. Critics of the imperial presidency pushed for Congress to take advantage of Nixon’s plummeting approval ratings and reclaim its constitutional war powers, which it sought to do that fall (overriding Nixon’s veto) with the War Powers Resolution. Even Chomsky was glad that Watergate had weakened Nixon sufficiently to prevent him from reigniting war in Southeast Asia. I. F. Stone further hoped that if Congress impeached Nixon, as seemed increasingly likely, it might deter his successors from abusing the office.[efn_note]Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View”; I. F. Stone, “A Special Supplement: Impeachment,” New York Review of Books, June 28, 1973.[/efn_note]

But the Left’s chief talking point during Watergate was that the scandal had laid bare the utter incompatibility of democracy with unfettered capitalism. The corporate donors who funded Nixon’s shadow campaign of dirty tricks had, wrote Irving Howe, a “kee[n] sense of class relations”—“Nixon was their man. And they were ready to pay.” Michael Walzer warned of “the makings of a new laissez faire,” wherein “equilibrium . . . between the government and the corporations” could be reached if only “nose reporters and ambitious attorney generals stopped interfering.” What was wrong, buylevitra after all, with those who had more capital using it to influence the government? It was their hard-earned money, right? Isn’t this a free country? If Americans were bothered by this prospect, then perhaps it would be best to make the leaders of corporations “subject to periodic review” and “responsible to a determinate constituency.” And the Left knew just how to make that happen.[efn_note]Howe, “Watergate: The Z Connection”; Michael Walzer, “Watergate without the President,” Dissent (Winter 1974). Also see Ernest J. Wilson III, “The Great Energy Gap, circa 1970–1990,” Black Scholar (March 1974): 30; and Amiri Baraka, “The Congress of Afrikan People: A Position Paper,” Black Scholar (Jan.–Feb. 1975): 12.[/efn_note]

Michael Harrington made the clearest case that Watergate validated the socialist cause. The scandal provided, he wrote, a strong “argument in favor of policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, for it is now clear that such policies will affect the maldistribution of political power as well as the maldistribution of income.” So long as capital was concentrated among a select few, so too would political influence. Harrington hoped the trauma and embarrassment of Watergate would wake up the American people to this fact and restore economic redistribution as a valid option.[efn_note]Harrington, “Watergate: On Politics & Money.”[/efn_note]

Why was the Left of the 1970s so much more alarmed (and excited) by Watergate than today’s Left is by what is arguably an even graver scandal? In part it’s because our current scandal has the added element of a campaign colluding with a foreign adversary; leftists in 1973 did not need to worry that getting to the bottom of Nixon’s dirty tricks might somehow embolden foreign-policy hawks. But the biggest difference between then and now is the political landscape resulting from the last presidential election.

The 2016 Democratic primary was the closest a major American political party has come to nominating a self-described democratic socialist for president. And he lost the nomination to an establishment centrist. When Hillary Clinton went on to lose the general election in a historic upset, the Left’s chief political goal became clear: it must convince the Democrats that Sanders’s unabashed socialism, not Clinton’s centrism, is the party’s future. Bernie would have won.

The public obsession with Russiagate is at odds with this message. The Left wants the narrative to be that Clinton lost because she was not Sanders. For #Resistance Democrats, however, the narrative is that Clinton lost because Trump colluded with Russia. If the Democrats become convinced the election was stolen, then they will not (the Left fears) reckon with the weakness of Clinton’s centrist platform. To make matters worse, the main substance of the Russiagate collusion is the publication of hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta which suggested to some that the Democratic establishment had sabotaged the primary to help Clinton beat Sanders.

1972 was a different story. The Democratic nominee, George McGovern, was the Left’s preferred candidate in the primary. McGovern supported a guaranteed minimum income and an immediate end to the Vietnam War, and he was overall more progressive than Ed Muskie or Hubert Humphrey. It was the establishment candidates, Muskie and Humphrey, whom Nixon’s dirty tricks team sabotaged with their various forged letters; Nixon wanted to run against McGovern. It would have made no sense for the Left to suggest the Democratic establishment was only investigating Watergate so they could explain away McGovern’s loss—the establishment hadn’t really wanted McGovern in the first place.

Indeed, some on the Left criticized the Democratic establishment for not taking Watergate seriously enough! When there were rumors in the mid-summer of 1974 that some Democratic senators were trying to drag out the impeachment process, Irving Howe alleged they wanted to keep Nixon in the White House so they could just run against Watergate in 1976 and not have to run on a substantive platform.[efn_note]Irving Howe, “Melting Down the Plastic Man,” Dissent (Summer 1974).[/efn_note]

Howe and others saved their fiercest criticism, though, for other members of the traditional Left who had insufficiently supported McGovern or even supported Nixon. McGovern’s affinity for hippies and peaceniks alienated most of the large labor unions, and the AFL-CIO took an official stance of neutrality rather than endorse the Democrat. The Socialist Party endorsed McGovern but only tepidly so, because anticommunists in its ranks (including civil rights activist Bayard Rustin) thought McGovern was too soft on North Vietnam.

McGovern’s defeat precipitated a schism in the Socialist Party. In December 1972 the party rebranded itself the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA), and soon thereafter Michael Harrington resigned and formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which later evolved into the DSA. And the DSOC crowd—the sorts of leftists who read Dissent, called themselves “democratic socialists” instead of “social democrats,” and had more in common with antiwar protestors than union men—used Watergate to say I-told-you-so to the stodgy Left of the SDUSA and the AFL-CIO. It is hard to imagine the equivalent (Chapo Trap House berating Jill Stein voters?) happening today.[efn_note]Irving Howe, “Thoughts after Watergate,” Dissent (Fall 1973); Irving Howe, “A Season for Democracy,” Dissent (Fall 1974).[/efn_note]

Over time, a more conspiratorial brand of Watergate skepticism crept into leftist circles. The presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump have made it less necessary to keep Nixon as an enemy, and even possible to claim him as an ally. Nixon was, in this narrative, the great peacemaker, the man who wanted to end the Cold War and broker a détente with China and the Soviet Union. But the deep state would not let this happen and therefore orchestrated Nixon’s undoing. The historian Michael Koncewicz (author of a new book on Republicans who turned against Nixon) once overheard some “Baby Boomers” at an antiwar conference in 2005 who thought Bob Woodward was a stooge for the CIA.

Oliver Stone hints at something similar in his 1995 film Nixon. In a heavily fictionalized scene, Nixon has a heated discussion with antiwar protestors late at night at the Lincoln Memorial, and a protestor says, “You can’t stop [the war], can you? Even if you wanted to. Because it’s not you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.” The apparent truth of this statement shakes Nixon to the core, leaving him muttering in his limousine about a metaphorical “beast.” In a deleted ten-minute scene, Nixon meets with CIA Director Richard Helms (played by Sam Waterston), who all but says out loud he will expose Nixon’s tangential connection to the JFK assassination if Nixon attempts to curb the CIA’s power. Altogether the movie suggests that, in some mysterious fashion, Watergate was the system’s way of stopping Nixon.

Few on the Left tell as sympathetic a story about Trump. But neither is the Left that interested in Trump as a villain. If anything, many prefer Hillary Clinton as a foil. She is more clearly emblematic of the neoliberal consensus the Left wishes to unravel, while Trump’s election was in many ways a rejection of that consensus. This leaves the Left in an awkward position, often speaking as if a minority party built on a fractious coalition were the establishment and a billionaire running the world’s largest empire were the underdog. In a sense, Russiagate skepticism is a way for leftists to live out their preferred timeline where Clinton won and they are her loyal opposition.

Of course, there are leftists who see things differently. Like the Watergate-era Left, they think Russiagate is a serious threat to democracy and an opportunity to expose the dangers of global capitalism.[efn_note]See, for example, Ryan Cooper, “Why the Left Needs to Wise Up to the Growing Trump-Russia Scandal,” The Week, July 23, 2018; and David Klion, “How Progressives Can Engage Russia,” The Nation, May 14, 2018.[/efn_note] They would do well, though, to recall the words of leftists after Nixon resigned, who quickly grew exasperated by pundits and politicians who thought everything could just return to normal. Nixon was quickly pardoned by his successor so that the nation could heal. Kissinger remained Secretary of State. The editorial board of the Black Scholar concluded in November 1974 that “the power structure simply decided that Richard Nixon had bungled the job, and had to be replaced by another business manager.” When Nixon stepped down, it proved the system worked.[efn_note]Howe, “Season for Democracy”; “The Role of Black Media,” Black Scholar (Nov. 1974): 1.[/efn_note]

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