In it’s historical context, Watergate was not a surprising development when it is considered that Nixon was a paranoid personality capable of using any avenue to insure that his political objectives were attained. He had proved that early in his political career in his famous Checkers speech. By the early 70’s however the nation had changed. It wasn’t as easy to dupe the public with sappy speeches to explain away political indiscretions. The country was seriously concerned about our involvement in Southeast Asia and how the administration was going to extricate itself from the disaster.
The media was on the job during this watershed period in our political history. The whitewash days of the Kennedy period were over. The press was willing to examine and cross-examine. This was a significant departure from the mentality of the press the day Kennedy was assassinated and his alleged assassin incredibly unprotected and gunned down two days later. The country had changed significantly by the early seventies. The passive public was not quite so willing to be blindly led anymore. The press was now activist in nature.
Archilbald Cox stated the Watergate experience is the convincing evidence of the ability of the American people to come together in times when abuses of political power appear and threaten our political system. The people were not willing to accept without question the proclamations of presidential press secretaries. In the process, the peoples self-image had to change. They matured and of course were willing to challenge authority. This is something that was unheard of in the 1950’s. The effect on our political institutions was dramatic.
It was a wake up call to Congress that their responsibilities within the system of checks and balances were of extreme importance. As the result of Watergate, the concept of a special prosecutor became a reality and despite initial problems it worked. Interestingly, Nixon true to his pattern of abusing power, arrogantly thought he could control the office of the special prosecutor (The Saturday Night Massacre). Fortunately Leon Jaworski, who was selected by Nixon to replace Archibald Cox, recognized the seriousness of the situation and continued the prosecution in an honorable fashion.
Jaworski is one of the true heroes of this episode in American Political History along with Elliot Richardson. These two men who recognized Nixon for the corrupt person he was and refused to be controlled by him. The question of changing the ongoing political movement to the right is an extraordinary one. At the time Nixon resigned he was seen as a patriot by the right wing much like Lt. Col. Oliver North was viewed in the Iran Contra affair, subscribing to the notion that the ends justify the means.
This was true of Nixon and his entourage of ex-CIA officers such as E. Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker (Cuban Exile and former CIA Contract agent), Chuck Colson (protege of E Howard Hunt) and Frank Sturgis a. k. a. Frank Fiorini, a former CIA operative who reported to E Howard Hunt. The CIA and Military are natural hotbeds for right wing extremism. Oliver North is our political history’s most recent publicized example. The problem here is that Military and Agency Officers, by the military code of the United States, are ot allowed to express their political views because of the potential for acts of treason.
In America, conservatism has triumphed in America by and large. One could argue that Watergate did impede this trend to the right, if only temporarily. In the off-year elections of 1974, Democrats gained 43 new seats in the house and four in the Senate. This created a more liberal Congress. Many lower-court decisions made it illegal for the president to withhold funds, and the War Powers Act gave Congress greater control over war making, checking the presidents power.
It is fortunate our system of checks and balances as well as congressional oversight improved as a direct result of the abuse of power we experienced with Watergate. As we saw with the Iran Contra Affair the impact on policy formation was significant. Iran Contra was all about illegally using the military and intelligence elements to circumvent congressional restrictions on assisting the Contras in Nicaragua. Nixon would have been very pleased with North, and North would have gone to prison except for a presidential pardon.
The familiarity with the Watergate scandal is incredible. In conclusion, one could say that the American people grew up from the Watergate scandal. The media assumed a greater watchdog role. Congress was reminded how important their position in balancing power was. The political movement of the nation may not have changed any more than it would have otherwise in the long run, but policy formation was affected. Watergate overall was a wonderful catalyst for reminding Americans what their country stood for.