June 2, 2004

    Lessons from Watergate
    The deaths of two Watergate figures invoke a predictable spate of nostalgia.
    But in today's divided country, the actions of Sam Dash and Archibald Cox
    under Nixon represent a commendable pursuit of truth.

    By Bruce Kluger

    On July 4, 1826, as citizens celebrated
    the fiftieth anniversary of America's
    freedom, Thomas Jefferson and John
    Adams died in their respective homes.
    From that day forward, historians have
    enjoyed imbuing the men's synchronized
    passing with a kind of other-worldly irony,
    inspiring them to look both forward and
    backward in assessing the legacy of these
    Founding Fathers.

    A similar event transpired last weekend, when two symbols of American justice and
    presidential politics died on the same day, just as the nation was gearing up for
    Memorial Day. To be sure, the simultaneous passing of Archibald Cox and Sam
    Dash will not be remembered with the same providential reverence as the Jefferson-
    Adams deaths, but rather as one of those fluky bits of timing.

    All the same, in remembering the feats both men performed during a time of
    unprecedented domestic turbulence, one can't help but recognize how far we have
    come as a nation, and yetas alwayshow history is doomed to repeat itself.

    As chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign
    Activitiesotherwise known as the Watergate CommitteeSam Dash oversaw the
    legal machinations of the Congressional inquiry, a painful proceeding that would
    ultimately lead to the first and only resignation of an American president.

    Archibald Cox, meanwhile, occupied a stormier perch in the Watergate scandal.
    Appointed as the government's special prosecutor into the affair, Cox was one of
    three high-ranking officials (including the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney
    General) who lost their jobs on what became known as the "Saturday Night
    Massacre"simply for doing what they believed was right for the American people.

    While the deaths of Dash and Cox have induced a predictable spate of Watergate
    nostalgia in the media, a more valuable lesson hides between the lines of their
    obituaries. Recalling their actions during the convulsive days of Watergate, I
    couldn't help but recognize how the very quest for justice both men pursued 30
    years ago, and the bedrock principles of democracy that informed those efforts, are
    still alive and well in the current debate over the performance of our 43rd President.

    Take Archibald Cox. Before his egregious dismissal from his job as chief
    prosecutor, Cox had been nothing less than thorough in teasing out the seedier
    back-story to the Watergate fiasco. Lurking among the darker corners of the Nixon
    Administration, Cox helped uncover financial shenanigans within the Nixon re-
    election campaign, as well as damning evidence of conspiracy and cover-up within
    the highest reaches of the White House. And, of course, it was Cox's unyielding
    demand that Nixon turn over secret tape recordings made in the Oval Office that
    led to his firing.

    In hindsight, Cox's doggedness in pursuit of the truth now seems not only justified
    but downright commendable, considering the outcome. So why do supporters of the
    current President insist that similar probes are out of bounds and unpatriotic?

    Is it such a reach to compare the investigation of Nixon's notorious slush fund to the
    ongoing questions over the Bush Administration's chronic back-channeling of
    contracts and tax-breaks to former oil and business cronies? Were the Watergate
    conspiracy and cover-up any less murky than the ever-unfolding story of the
    Administration's secret ramp-up to the war in Iraq? And, frankly, how different was
    Cox's demand for the White House tapes from the ongoing pleas by journalists and
    legislators for the Bush Administration to hand over similarly vital evidence? It is
    unsettling, to say the least, that Nixon's stonewalling is now perceived as a fatal
    flaw, and yet the current administration has demonstrated the same kind of
    stubborn secrecy when petitioned for any number of documentsfrom pre-9/11
    memos, to early revelations about the Abu Ghraib mess, to the still-undisclosed
    details of the Vice President's Energy Task Force.

    (The latter, like Cox's petition for the Nixon tapes during Watergate, is now before
    the Supreme Court. Back in 1974, the Justices stood behind the public's right to
    know what their leaders were up to. Don't expect the same courtesy from this Court.)

    No less compelling are the parallels between Sam Dash's role in Watergate, and
    those of the men and women who now seek to swing open the doors of the Oval
    Office. To be sure, it was Dash whose persistent interrogation of White House aide
    Alexander Butterfield exposed the existence of a secret taping system; but what
    Dash will be remembered best for was not so much what he did on the Watergate
    panel, but the character and integrity he displayed throughout. He was admired on
    both sides of the aisle for his fairness and candorand not only during Watergate.
    In 1994, Dash surprised Democrats by signing on as an ethics advisor to Ken
    Starr's Whitewater investigation of President Clinton, only to quit four years later
    when he determined that Starr's aggressive pursuit of impeachment wasn't the kind
    of impartial investigation he had in mind.

    "As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict," Dash said at the
    time of his resignation. "This is an absolute mission with me."

    At this moment, millions of Americans are on the same mission. Still rocked by the
    atrocities of September 11and now embroiled in both combat abroad and political
    battles here at homethe nation turns to its leader for answers. But time after time,
    President Bush has exhibited the same kind of contempt for public disclosure that
    got our 37th President into so much trouble three decades ago. Sam Dash wouldn't
    have stood for that. Neither should we.

    I am not implying that the Bush Administration is guilty of Nixonesque abuse of
    power (not yet, at least); nor am I suggesting that if the President has engaged in
    misguiding American citizens, that his duplicity has reached the level of high crimes
    against our nation.

    But the time has certainly come for President Bush to accept that fact that, like it or
    not, the country is now divided as painfully as it was during the Watergate era. And
    that it is this issueand not his re-election campaignthat deserves his complete

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Nixon-era icons Sam Dash (left) and Archibald Cox