The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years later, Watergate is still shaping our politics

How the scandal remade relations within the government

Police and telephone workers check out the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on June 17, 1972, after five men were arrested during a break-in attempt. (Ken Feil/The Washington Post)
8 min

Fifty years ago today, June 17, 1972, an inept burglary at the Washington offices of the Democratic National Committee ignited a political scandal that still affects the ways Americans conduct and evaluate their politics.

Watergate involved a complex web of illegal activities that drove President Richard M. Nixon from the White House in 1974 and sent many of his senior advisers to prison. But its implications echoed far beyond the 1970s. Not only did it become a cultural reference point, with the suffix “gate” attached to almost every subsequent episode of political corruption, but it mobilized the federal bureaucracy against the White House, inspired curbs on the power of the presidency and set the stage for the subsequent impeachments of presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

Popular memory of presidential scandals, including Watergate, centers on personal misconduct, salacious details and the personal heroism of those who root them out. They evoke all of the seven deadly sins: greed in Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome affair that roiled American life in the 1920s; lust in the Clinton impeachment; wrath and gluttony in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine; a stew of envy, anger and overweening pride in Watergate.

But this overlooks the substantive institutional change that has resulted from scandals in the executive branch. Charges of corruption have been a tool that political actors have deployed to redraw the boundaries between professional government and party politicians, between appointed experts and elected officials, between the bureaucracy and Congress, between nonpartisan expertise and partisan electoral combat. Although partisans often exploit scandal to gain electoral advantage, scandal — including Watergate — has actually weakened partisan attachments and helped to promote nonpartisan and even anti-partisan forms of political behavior.

In the 1910s, the Pinchot-Ballinger affair — which involved sensationalized accusations of corruption in the leasing of federal coal lands — pitted appointees of President William Howard Taft against officials loyal to his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. It also featured the now-familiar combination of a prominent whistleblower, press leaks, congressional investigations and celebrity lawyers. At stake was whether party organizations would continue to dominate American governance through patronage appointments or cede authority to an independent bureaucracy. Allegations that Taft’s secretary of Interior had improperly rewarded land claimants he represented as a private attorney became a way for appointed experts in the executive branch, holdovers from the Roosevelt administration, to fight the efforts of Taft’s political appointees to reverse their policies. Publicized by a muckraking press, the charges became weapons in a bureaucratic struggle over the nature of American governance, even if little actual misconduct took place.

By contrast, Harding’s brief tenure in the White House was riddled with actual scandals: Harding’s Veterans Bureau chief was convicted of bribery and fraud, and his attorney general was indicted on corruption charges and driven from office for refusing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry. The president himself was embroiled in numerous sexual peccadillos, including fathering a child with one of his mistresses. None of those scandals, however, matched “Teapot Dome,” the exposure of a corrupt giveaway of public resources to friends of the administration.

Teapot Dome weakened party organizations in a different way from the Pinchot-Ballinger scandal. Harding’s vice president and successor, Calvin Coolidge, disassociated himself from the scandal tainting Republicans in 1924 by forming an organization separate from the party machinery. The Coolidge nonpartisan League orchestrated a media campaign that included flattering magazine profiles, radio broadcasts and films of the president. The campaign took pains to depict Coolidge as an upright, nonpartisan statesman (which they believed appealed especially to newly enfranchised female voters they saw as hostile to parties altogether). Coolidge’s response to Teapot Dome introduced professional public relations and advertising professionals to presidential politics and intensified the emphasis on candidate personality. In the process, it accelerated the shift from the party-dominated politics of the 19th century to the modern mass-mediated style of presidential politics.

Half-a-century later, Watergate reinforced the trend of scandal producing large-scale institutional change. It certainly featured numerous weird-but-true episodes and characters — the Enemies List, the Plumbers, CREEP (the aptly-acronymed Committee for the Reelection of the President) and Deep Throat — the secret source who met Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward who remained the great Washington mystery for 30 years.

Nixon had long hated the press, and Watergate seemed to validate adversarial relations between journalists and politicians, especially investigations of scandal. After all, it drove Nixon from the White House and brought glory to investigative reporters like Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But the story made famous by “All the President’s Men” overlooks the ways in which this scandal once again remade government institutions and imposed constraints on partisan politics.

In 2005, Woodward confirmed that Deep Throat had actually been FBI associate director Mark Felt. That revelation led historians to revisit the deeper meanings of Watergate: to see it not as an ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives or a political clash between Congress and the White House, but as part of a long-standing institutional struggle between the White House and the entrenched federal bureaucracy.

Felt was no liberal; he applauded Nixon’s attacks on college radicals and civil rights activists. Nor did he care about the prerogatives of Congress. He just did not want Nixon — or any politician — to mess with the autonomy of the FBI. According to the biographer of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he and his protege, Felt, put their trust in the administrative state — the responsibility of public-spirited bureaucrats, insulated from political interference, to protect the national interest.

Nixon, however, emerged from the bare-knuckled arena of partisan combat; he detested the bureaucracy, which he saw as an arrogant, out-of-touch elite. When Hoover died in May 1972, Nixon passed over Felt and installed a political ally as the acting director. He also tried to use the Bureau (as well as the IRS and other agencies) for political objectives (such as harassing opponents). Felt refused to stand for it. “We faced no simple burglary,” he wrote of Watergate in his memoir, “but an assault on government institutions, an attack on the FBI’s integrity.”

Watergate represented another skirmish in the battle between the civil service, the professional officials in the bureaucracy and the partisan agendas of politicians. But it also reshaped the relationships among Congress, the executive and the courts. It launched congressional oversight of federal intelligence agencies, the War Powers resolution, tighter campaign finance laws and independent counsel investigations of executive branch malfeasance.

Paradoxically, even though those reforms and Nixon’s ouster highlighted successful efforts by Congress, courts and the civil service to rein in the presidency and place checks on partisan politics, Americans mainly interpreted the scandal as a warning never to trust the government. Watergate thus intensified generalized anti-government sentiment, including distrust of the very career officials who had brought down the Watergate perpetrators.

President Donald Trump exploited such suspicions in his attacks on the “Deep State.” But the web of charges against him once again invoked response from the permanent government. Despite numerous allegations ranging from hush money payments to porn stars, to personal profit from government activities, it was the resistance of career professionals in the federal bureaucracy, in this case the CIA, to the politicization of government operations that actually launched the investigation.

The whistleblower complaint and the testimony of career diplomats in the impeachment inquiry continued the pattern of Pinchot-Ballinger and Watergate: that behind presidential scandal often looms a struggle between partisan politicians and the entrenched bureaucracy. Even the current era of extreme polarization, when Democrats and Republicans demonize each other and bipartisan cooperation seems an outmoded relic of the past, civil servants fight to protect a zone of professional government relatively free of partisan politics. Outing misconduct remains a potent tool in that struggle.

The tales of human weakness at the heart of political scandal capture public attention — greed, lust, pride and envy are irresistible. But the history of presidential scandal turns out to be at once a lot less juicy and a lot more important. In the long transition from the party-dominated politics and weak executive branch of the early-20th century to the imperial presidency and mass-mediated politics of today, presidential scandals have played a significant role. In those transformations, disappointingly bland as they may seem, Americans can find the real meaning of Watergate and other notorious scandals.