Alternet.org 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
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 yet—as always—how history is doomed to repeat itself.
As chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign
Activities—otherwise known as the Watergate Committee—Sam 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 documents—from 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 candor—and 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 11—and now embroiled in both combat abroad and political
battles here at home—the 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 issue—and not his re-election campaign—that deserves his complete
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