Watergate Still Has Washington Impact

Nixon's fiasco marked a loss of innocence in US political life - a letter from Washington

TODAY marks the 20th anniversary of one of Washington's most celebrated crimes: the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the posh Watergate office building here. Dogged Washington Post reporting and a special congressional inquiry posing the threat of impeachment eventually forced then-President Richard Nixon to resign.

"It confirmed our darkest visions of how government works," says Suzanne Garment, author of the recently-published book "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

The public mistrust of government born during the 1960s grew dramatically during and after Watergate, she says. Newly elected members of Congress and a rising generation of journalists reflected this attitude. The more they dug, the more Washington alienated the American public. This, she says, led to greater numbers of tribunals and special prosecutors poring over charges of official wrongdoing, reinforcing the appearance of scandal.

From the huge savings-and-loan debacle to the financially inconsequential but politically explosive House banking scandal, public confidence in elected officials, and government bureaucracy has steadily eroded.

Watergate coined phrases, such as coverup, deep throat, and "-gate," the preferred suffix for allegations of organized political malfeasance, such as Irangate during the later years of President Reagan's second term and now, Iraqgate.

Iraqgate? Republican loyalists pooh-pooh allegations that the Bush administration illegally used United States Agriculture Department credits to help build Iraq's military arsenal through 1990. These naysayers attribute the allegations to the partisanship that accompanies a presidential campaign.

But many congressional Democrats say they're on to something, and they're anxious to expose what they see as a scandalous Bush policy. They've called for an independent prosecutor to investigate. House Banking Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas has led the charge - and a host of hearings into the matter.

Committee members and witnesses allege that federal agencies, from US Customs to the Justice Department, have obstructed the congressional investigations. When such obstacles are surmounted and the "paperwork is fully and finally examined, this Congress ... will conclude that complicity is a nice term for what transpired between our executive branch and the country of Iraq over the last 10 years," says US Rep. Charlie Rose (D) of North Carolina, chairman of the Subcommitee on Department Operations, Rese arch, and Foreign Agriculture.

But if Watergate heightened scrutiny of Washington's activites - and reaffirmed the Constitution's system of checks and balances - its long-term aftermath also showed that in the eyes of many, no one is beyond redemption.

Witness the bounce-back of Richard Nixon, who has been dispensing foreign-policy advice to President Bush. Even Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy is a folk hero of sorts. He's prospering with a popular local radio call-in program - his soap box for ultra-conservative views.

Perhaps this city's most telling example is Washington's former mayor, Marion Barry. He was forced out of the capital city's politics last year after he was convicted on cocaine charges. Fresh out of jail, Mr. Barry has already declared his candidacy for the District of Columbia City Council. He may just win.

Garment says the media blitz and all its trappings (such as million-dollar book deals secured by those convicted who feel they must tell their stories) has blurred the distinction between fame and notoriety.

She says it used to be that if you were indicted for something, you were scorned; these days, she adds, indictments don't even jeopardize Washington dinner invitations.

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