Watergate, Rebooted

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, by Cass R. Sunstein, is not an attempt to rally the public to any particular cause but rather a tribute to the Founding Fathers’ wisdom, writes Scott McLemee.

December 8, 2017

From the perspective of a fourth-grader, Watergate was a real nuisance. You would settle down in front of the TV in late afternoon to watch Star Trek reruns (or whatever) only to find congressional hearings instead, with boring old guys going on and on about … what? For the longest time, it wasn't clear if even the adults knew. Something to do with plumbers?

And it seemed endless. At this distance, I find it hard to believe just 16 months passed between the start of the hearings in May 1973 and Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974. As with a building remembered from childhood, it felt a lot bigger, and indeed my memory of the Watergate era is more of a place than a period. The space was crowded: certain names (G. Gordon Liddy, Archibald Cox, Deep Throat) were always in the news, and the demand that Nixon turn over his tape recordings in particular made for a heavy, brooding atmosphere.

It was a crisis -- though by the standards of today's 24-hour news cycle, the pace was glacial. In time it became obvious that the one thing at stake, fundamentally, was whether or not the president was telling the truth. And by 1975, my jaded sixth-grade self could look back with embarrassment at how naïve I had been in having ever assumed that he was.

That cynicism was not especially precocious. With hindsight, I think Gerald Ford made it inevitable. Shortly after Nixon resigned and he was sworn in, Ford assured us that "our long national nightmare [was] over," with the whole experience going to show that the Constitution worked. One month later, he gave Nixon a pardon, and the question of whether a quid pro quo were involved was moot. From then on, it seemed like common sense to assume that political figures and institutions were untrustworthy, if not totally corrupt, until proven otherwise.

The Pew Research Center's recent report on U.S. public opinion concerning the government shows that this was indeed a common assessment at the time and one that Americans have, over the long run, taken ever more as a given. Analyzing polling data gathered between 1958 and 2017, the study shows the highest level of confidence in Washington -- with 77 percent of respondents trusting the government to do the right thing just about always or most of the time -- occurred in 1964, during LBJ's first year in office, but dropped to 62 percent by the time he left. The decline became even more precipitous over the Nixon years and slowed only a little after that.

There have been upticks and even sustained upturns, particularly during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. But a graph of public opinion over the past half century makes public trust in the government look something like the bounce of a rubber ball -- never returning to the level it was at before Watergate, and at 20 percent as of early April.

Since then, President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey in May has set in motion what the comedian John Oliver calls “Stupid Watergate” -- that is, “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything.” Leaving matters of quality control aside, what I've noticed over the past few months is not so much historical parallels but an echo of the experience described earlier: the sense of being inundated by news that it would be nice to tune out for a while but that you can't not pay attention to for very long. Or stuck in a maze, with no certainty that there is a way out.

Nothing in Cass R. Sunstein's Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide (Harvard University Press) specifically discusses the current president; in fact, it never mentions Trump at all, unless you count a newspaper headline cited in the notes. The author is a professor at Harvard Law School, and the book itself is pretty didactic. He is not trying to rally the public to any cause apart from his belief that "the impeachment clause was among the most important parts of the Constitution" and "a kind of unused key that might unlock the whole republic."

That said, the volume's first wave of readers will skew anti-Trump and probably take A Citizen's Guide to imply a do-it-yourself handbook. All in all, they might be advised to turn directly to chapter seven, in which Sunstein gives 21 examples of presidential actions that might stir up calls for impeachment, each accompanied by a brief analysis of whether or not it constitutes an impeachable offense. The earlier chapters explain the history and principles involved in making those calls, but it might be better to pick an intuitive sense of the issues by starting with the case studies. Also worth an early look is chapter eight, on the 25th Amendment's provisions for removing a president rendered "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Readers eager to get Stupid Watergate over with will not find a how-to manual in those two chapters. On the contrary, Sunstein leaves you with a good understanding of the difficulties involved in removing a president by impeachment and a sense that doing so under the 25th Amendment is unlikely this side of the commander in chief falling into a coma. At the same time, the book is a tribute to the Founding Fathers' wisdom in providing for a remedy in case someone who is vicious, lawless and unfit should somehow end up in power. What they could not foresee, of course, is that popular distrust for the government might culminate in the election of someone who made his own nihilism a campaign platform. From here it seems hard to see the exit.


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