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 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT