The White House was at war with the press, calling journalists elitists and out of touch with Real America.
Yet in story after story, allegations against the administration turned out to be true, forcing the president and his men to backtrack.
Eventually, a president who won election by proclaiming his support for law and order was himself implicated in crimes.
For much of November, I immersed myself in the book and movie “All The President’s Men” as well as other stories of Watergate. Then, on Nov. 18, The Loft Cinema screened the movie, and afterward Jim Nintzel of the Tucson Weekly and I hosted a discussion of “All The President’s Men,” Watergate and the parallels to today. They are pretty remarkable.
Here are some of the main parallels and contrasts I found after digging into a period of political scandal that played out before I was old enough to understand.
1. Attack the press
Week after week in 1972 and 1973, The Washington Post took risks publishing stories by two young reporters intent on showing that the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel was not a one-off incident. The paper wanted to show it was part of a campaign of political sabotage authorized by the White House and in some cases carried out by government agents.
Gradually, other outlets like the New York Times, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times joined in. But it was The Post that took the regular abuse in the White House briefing room from President Nixon’s spokesman, Ron Ziegler.
“This is a political effort by The Washington Post, well-conceived and coordinated, to discredit this Administration and individuals in it,” Ziegler said in October 1972. “Now, we have had a long run of these types of stories presented by this particular newspaper, a newspaper once referred to as a great newspaper, but I would, as I said before, suggest that the journalistic tactic being used here is shoddy and shabby and is a vicious abuse of the journalistic process.”
In other words, the Nixon White House attacked The Post then the same way the Trump White House attacks CNN now.
Some of the specific critiques are similar, too. Ziegler and others denounced The Post’s reliance on anonymous sources in its Watergate stories. Trump these days tells his supporters via Twitter that if a story cites anonymous sources, they’re made up.
Nixon’s allies also attacked the press as elitist and out of touch. Nixon aide Charles Colson said that if Post editor Ben Bradlee “ever left the Georgetown cocktail circuit ... he might discover out here the real America. And he might learn that all truth and all knowledge and all superior wisdom just doesn’t emanate exclusively from that small little clique in Georgetown.”
Trump and his allies have made a similar attack, but in more brutal and dangerous terms, calling those of us in the news media “the enemy of the people.”
2. Law and order criminals
Richard Nixon was elected in part because, as the disorder of the late 1960s spread, he promised law and order, appealing to what he called the country’s “silent majority.” He picked as a vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, the Maryland governor who had made his name lashing out at rioters in Baltimore and praising “law and order.” Agnew was the proto-Trump, bashing liberals and saying politically incorrect things to delight his supporters.
Both Nixon and Agnew, it turned out, were crooks — law-and-order criminals, if you please.
The Nixon and Trump scandals both started with break-ins of a sort at the Democratic National Committee. The Watergate burglary was a literal break-in, and the stealing of DNC emails in 2016 was a virtual break-in.
In the wake of the Watergate burglary, part of a campaign of sabotage against Nixon’s opponents, the president obstructed justice trying to cover up the crime.
Agnew was even more brazen, as a stellar new podcast called Bag Man describes it. Agnew took kickbacks for government contracts from the time he was Baltimore County executive to when he was Maryland governor, and even accepted cash bribes in the White House when he was vice president.
Now we have Trump, who also came to office proclaiming that he was representing a “silent majority” and its demand for “law and order.” And he also has implicated himself in obstruction of justice. The difference between Nixon and Trump is that Nixon tried to quietly obstruct justice, funneling hush money to the Watergate burglars and pushing the CIA to interfere in the FBI investigation.
Trump is more overt in his efforts. He acknowledged, in an NBC interview, firing James Comey because of the FBI’s investigation of his campaign’s connections to Russia. Via Twitter, he has publicly praised people like Roger Stone for not cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He talks about people who cooperate with investigators as if he were a mob boss and they were snitches.
“It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal,” he said in a Fox interview.
3. Drip, drip, drip
In both the Nixon and Trump cases, allegations have emerged, been denied, then eventually been proven true.
Among the most criticized Post stories were those that alleged Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman had overseen the Watergate break-in and other acts of political sabotage. In the end, when White House counsel John Dean flipped and helped the special counsel’s investigation of Nixon, it emerged that Haldeman truly was implicated, and he was forced to resign. Ziegler, the spokesman, even apologized to The Post.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever see any apologies from the Trump White House, but there has been a similar drip-drip-drip of allegations that emerged in the press, then were eventually accepted as fact by all sides.
Trump denied in early 2017, after taking office, that his campaign had any contact with Russia. Then it emerged that his son and campaign manager had met in June 2016 with a Russian attorney, who it turned out had represented Russia’s security services, promising material about Hillary Clinton.
In the last two weeks, it emerged that the Trump Organization had continued pursuing a Moscow tower deal deep into the campaign, even communicating with the Kremlin about it, despite Trump’s denials of contact with Russia. On Nov. 30, he acknowledged the truth of that but called it “very legal & very cool.”
In Nixon’s case, the continuing disclosures led in 1973 to him being abandoned by many of his supporters who had been steadfast to that point.
4. Contrasting media
In the Trump case, it seems unlikely that continuing disclosures will erode his support the way Nixon’s support declined in 1973. The big difference is the media environment.
There exists in 2018 a freer flow of information, thanks to social media, and there is an alternative group of mass-media outlets that exists to support the president. For every disclosure that would have hurt President Nixon, in Trump’s case there are influential media personalities like Sean Hannity and institutions like Fox News trying to make the disclosures look as benign as possible.
Also, Trump has trained his supporters from the time of his campaign not to believe anything negative the news media reports about him. That’s the point of calling it “fake news,” as Trump admitted to Lesley Stahl of CBS News.
But that faith is increasingly being tested. The court filings made by prosecutors Friday say not only that Trump directed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to commit felony violations of campaign-finance laws, but that the Russian government and Trump campaign talked about cooperating on political and business matters earlier than previously disclosed, in November 2015.
Drip, drip, drip.