Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Distrustful Americans still live in age of Watergate

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994. President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994.
HIDE CAPTION
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The Watergate scandal had a devastating effect on American politics
  • We still live in the era of Watergate, the scandal still reverberates today
  • He says current politics is filled with accusations, scandals with the suffix "gate"
  • Watergate created a climate where Americans don't really trust government

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." This January, Penguin Press will publish his new book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker passed away recently. Although he was known for many things, Baker's most enduring moment came in the middle of the Watergate scandal, when he asked: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

The scandal happened 40 years ago. It started with a break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington, D.C. and it was followed with subsequent efforts to obstruct an investigation into whether the White House had been involved.

In July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that the White House had to turn over recorded presidential conversations to the investigators. The House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the three articles of impeachment, charging President Richard Nixon with obstruction of justice.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The Watergate scandal had a devastating effect on American politics. In his riveting forthcoming book, "The Invisible Bridge," Rick Perlstein skillfully recounts the era that was shaped by the scandal and the way in which the sordid activities of the Nixon administration unfolded on a day-by-day basis.

Each revelation gave voters another reason not to trust their elected officials and to believe the worst arguments that people made about government. Americans could never look at government the same way again.

The scandal continues to reverberate today throughout the political spectrum. We still live in the era of Watergate.

For Democrats, who many thought would have been the beneficiaries of a scandal that brought down a Republican president, the level of distrust that the scandal generated among the public has been an ongoing challenge.

Is "Bridgegate" another Watergate?
Nixon's Watergate testimony released

At the most basic level, Democrats argue that the federal government offers the best solution to the problems of the day. But if the public does not trust its elected officials, Democrats are left in a position of having to constantly defend the legitimacy of the institutions of government and to convince voters that bureaucrats really will do their job.

The intense skepticism surrounding the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service scandal have revealed how easy it is for opponents of government to stoke these kinds of fears.

Republicans have suffered too, even after the party separated itself from Nixon as its figurehead. The truth is that Republicans promote government as well, just for different reasons. Their programs have, likewise, been subject to constant scrutiny as a result of the lingering distrust from Watergate.

For conservatives, national security programs have been a centerpiece of their agenda. Republicans have pushed for expanding the military budget and since 9/11 many have called for an aggressive response to terrorism that includes sweeping surveillance programs and enhanced interrogation techniques.

Revelations about what government officials do without public accountability -- such as torture or snooping into e-mails -- have deepened public distrust and created strong pushbacks.

Politicians in both parties must operate in a political environment filled with investigations, or accusations of another scandal looming with the suffix "gate" attached to it. Whenever some kind of scandal breaks, it doesn't take long for the story to escalate and for questions to arise as to whether this will end up as big as Watergate.

Often, this outlook has salutary effects by encouraging politicians to make sure that similar levels of corruption don't happen again.

But, too often, as many would say has been the case with the IRS, stories of administrative mismanagement are blown out of proportion, consuming Washington's time and taking their attention away from major problems.

The worst effect of Watergate is that it created a climate where Americans fundamentally don't trust their government. It is one thing to be suspicious, another to reject altogether. Recent approval ratings for Congress tanked to 7% and for the President 29%. This is part of the broader trend we have seen since the 1960s.

It is extremely difficult for government to do its job or for voters to have the kind of faith in government, which is necessary for a healthy society.

When Howard Baker asked his famous question, his hope was not to disparage government but to make it better. He wanted to find the corruption, to seek the reform so that government could do its job once again. Unfortunately, the kind of faith that Baker had in government never returned.

To really banish the memories of Watergate and set the government on a better course, reforming politics is the most important solution.

Improving our campaign finance system by curbing the influence of private money and imposing stronger restrictions on lobbying, such as the revolving door between the government and lobbying groups, is an essential first start.

Until we take those kinds of steps, voters will always be seeing the shadow of Richard Nixon when they look at their elected leaders.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT