I haven't spent a lot of time talking about Watergate recently, but I have encountered a few people who have tried to argue that Nixon didn't do anything that LBJ and Kennedy hadn't done before him. Some, I think, were not old enough at the time to recall, and have just heard, vaguely, that he did some bad stuff and concluded: well, most politicians do bad stuff; so what? Some, like Ben Stein, ought to know better but don't:
"Can anyone even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible? He ended the war in Vietnam, brought home the POW's, ended the war in the Mideast, opened relations with China, started the first nuclear weapons reduction treaty, saved Eretz Israel's life, started the Environmental Protection Administration. Does anyone remember what he did that was bad?
Oh, now I remember. He lied. He was a politician who lied. How remarkable."
This sort of historical revisionism bothers me, so, for the benefit of anyone here who was either not around at the time or not old enough to recall, a few quotes to indicate why, exactly, what Nixon did was neither normal nor tolerable. First, William F. Buckley:
"On January 5, 1973, Howard Hunt, an old friend and my sometime boss in the CIA, came to see me, accompanied by one of his daughters (my goddaughter, as it happened). He told me the appalling, inside story of Watergate, including the riveting news that one of the plumbers was ready and disposed to kill Jack Anderson, the journalist-commentator, if word came down to proceed to that lurid extreme."
Riveting? Not the word I would have chosen. Ask yourself how Hunt would have known that someone was willing to kill Jack Anderson had it not been seriously discussed.
Next, John Dean:
"Even by the standards of the Nixon White House, the plan to blow up Washington’s pre-eminent think tank seemed crazy, presidential counselor John W. Dean III recalled here Monday.
But there was White House aide John Ehrlichman on the phone one day in 1971, telling Dean that “Chuck Colson wants me to firebomb the Brookings (Institution).” Describing the incident Monday to several hundred presidential history junkies at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Dean said he was dumbfounded.
“I said, ‘John, this is absolute insanity,’ ” he remembered. “People could die. This is absurd.” (...)
It seemed incredible, but now that he has listened to earlier tapes, Dean said he has heard Nixon “literally pounding on his desk, saying ‘I want that break-in at the Brookings (Institution).’ " "
From the Nixon tapes:
"Nixon: Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No? Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that it makes somebody else responsible."
This is not just the normal lying, cheating, and minor corruption (although Nixon had a particular flair for that: iirc, on the occasion of a candlelight vigil on the White House lawn, he brought up the possibility of using low-flying helicopters to blow out all the candles.) This is planning murder, arson, and of course burglary. In addition, there was a lot of financial corruption, and the use of the entire machinery of government -- the FBI, the IRS, you name it -- to go after those Nixon thought of as his political opponents. (Nixon, from the tapes: "Please get me the names of the Jews. You know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. Could we please investigate some of those c---suckers?")
This is not just "what all politicians do". This was different: a completely lawless White House whose corruption went way beyond normal.