The first time I read that some Republicans were comparing the Obama administration’s scandal orgy with Watergate, I laughed aloud. I accept that we could conceivably get somewhere like that from here, but that’s a concession no different from saying I could conceivably crawl all the way to Santiago, Chile from my apartment. Theoretically possible, but never gonna happen.
I will add that this doesn’t change the magnitude of the Obama administration’s corruption, but I’m not going to attribute it all to a Nixon-style crime spree on the part of the President himself without seeing some concrete evidence first. The fact that somebody may have deployed the IRS as election-year storm troopers while the Attorney General decided to convert the Justice Department into the Stasi in order to combat access-obsessed journalists and (we learned today) anyone who uses a cell phone is shocking, and I don’t mean to underplay it. Both are fundamentally un-American exercises of power. But Watergate? Please.
I confess that one reason for my strong reaction is the mythological weight that Watergate has acquired over the years. I’m not sure when this happened, exactly, but at some point I came to regard Nixon’s second term as the moment when cynicism towards government was born in the USA, as if the assassinations of the 1960’s and the lies of Lyndon Johnson in no way undermined anyone’s confidence in the Truth, Justice, and the American Way that Superman defended. What’s more, I know I’m not the originator of the let’s-put-it-all-on-Watergate-and-blame-Nixon school of thought. This is a conditioned response on my part, even if I can’t put names to my brainwashers.
At any rate, Watergate has come to symbolize the ultimate political scandal in the United States, and the idea that any subsequent scandal could approximate such a defining nadir seems ludicrous. This is stupid for two vital reasons: first, Watergate was actually a pedestrian and unimaginative affair. A paranoid burglary followed by a bungling and increasingly panicked cover-up by garden-variety power hungry men. Local school board elections come with juicier scandals these days, and with apologies to All the Presidents Men, the only way we’d make Watergate into a movie today is as a comedy – not a drama – and even then, we’d have to add more sex if we wanted to sell tickets.
The second strange thing about using Watergate as the rubric by which all scandals are measured is the fact that an American Vice President – while in office – murdered the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, and didn’t even resign his office. Call me crazy, but I’ll take Nixon (and Obama, obviously) over that any day.
The shooting of Alexander Hamilton (you know, the guy on your $10 bills) by Vice President Aaron Burr was a long time ago. I don’t want to hurt any Baby Boomers, but so was Watergate. I know there are other reasons why Watergate has endured in our memories in a way that the Burr-Hamilton duel has not (TV and Bob Woodward, to name two), but it’s 2013 now and nobody old enough to remember being shocked by Nixon has their original hair color (except for Al Pacino and those of you who have the original hair color “bald”). In fact, well over half of today’s Americans weren’t even alive when it happened, and for those 150,000,000+ of us, both scandals are just stories from a world we never knew.
Anyway, Aaron Burr. Apart from his exceptionally tasteful first name, historical accounts of him suggest that his megalomania and thirst for power would’ve made Nixon blush (at least, Nixon would’ve blushed before sending the IRS after him). The backstory to his 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton includes Burr tying with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, and Hamilton – acting as a power broker from the other party – ensuring that the presidency was kept out of Burr’s hands because he feared Burr would make himself into a dictator.
I’ll reframe that to make sure you caught it. Remember the interminable 2000 election between Bush and Gore? Imagine if Presidents and Vice Presidents had to be voted on separately (instead of as a ticket), and imagine that Gore lost the 2000 election outright, but Cheney tied Bush (Since Burr was Jefferson’s running mate, but somehow tied him for president. Did I mention Burr was Machiavellian?). Now imagine a major figure from the other party, someone like Teddy Kennedy was in 2000, saw to it that Cheney was made VP instead of President not because he disliked his politics – remember, he’s from the other party, so he dislikes both of their politics – but rather because he saw Cheney as a potential Castro or Chavez and despised him as a person. Now, imagine if after that plus four more years of political intrigue between Vice President Cheney and Kennedy, Cheney shot and killed Kennedy.
Of course, there were some key differences. Ted Kennedy was a major Democratic figure, but we’ll never see his face on paper money; he just wasn’t important enough. In contrast, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Alexander Hamilton in our country’s history. Also, Aaron Burr served out his term and never resigned, and was later arrested for treason for maybe trying to start his own new country on the Gulf Coast. So not only did the Vice President kill someone who gets mentioned in the same breath as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but he avoided any penalties for doing so, and shortly thereafter tried to set up his own country. All after tying in an election for President of the United States.
So why is Watergate the scandal against which other scandals are measured?
I remind you of this moment in our history to remind of you something else about which I’ve written before: the hysteria pervading modern American politics is embarrassingly overwrought for anyone who knows our history. Obama’s administration is not the most corrupt or the most shocking in history: Harding’s was probably more corrupt, and Jefferson’s Vice Presidential scandal (the Burr-Hamilton duel) towers over everything we’ve seen since, including Nixon’s masterpiece. Gridlock between today’s parties is not the most toxic or intransigent in history: the United States once had a Civil War. Politics today is not more personal than ever before: Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. However bad things may be today, they’ve been worse, and they got better. So while I have no idea where the current scandals will go, until Joe Biden kills a man, we should probably just calm down.