Watergate reforms fade, 30 years later

The Watergate scandal that resulted in the only resignation of a US president produced profound changes in the American political system – from a deep-rooted distrust of public officials to the rise of investigative journalism to a greater openness in government.

Today, 30 years after what was called a "third-rate burglary," many of those sweeping changes are now being reversed or receding into history as a quaint curio.

In just the past few months, the federal government has loosened many of the restraints on intelligence-gathering that were rooted in the Watergate era. Americans are no longer reflexively cynical about their leaders, if President Bush's approval ratings in particular are to be believed. Even many of today's young reporters have a different raison d'être: They want to be narrative storytellers as much as investigative journalists, developing Deep Voices instead of Deep Throats.

"My sense is you can just erase the '70s," says LeRoy Ashby, a historian at Washington State University.

Part of the change in the nation's zeitgeist simply reflects the normal ebb and flow of history. Part of it is generational: Today's 20-somethings are more likely to remember the Watergate complex as Monica Lewinsky's address than as the site of a politically motivated burglary of Democratic headquarters on June 17, 1972.

Part of it is the defining moment of the time: In the 1970s, it was Watergate and everything it represented about the excesses of government. Today it is the war on terrorism after an attack that exposed America's vulnerability.

"We reacted strongly to Watergate and Watergate-era excesses of government power," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here. "Now we're making a readjustment. We're swinging back to what we were before, but to a new set of realities."

More respect for authority

In some respects, the swing is culture-wide. Americans' impulse to embrace rather than spurn people in positions of authority, as well as certain institutions, is seen in everything from movies that celebrate patriotism to a canonization of those in the military to Mr. Bush's poll numbers.

Indeed, suspicion of official Washington – from the Vietnam War, to the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan years, to the image of Bill Clinton as "slick Willie" – has often been cited as one of the most enduring legacies of Watergate.

In a more concrete sense, the shift is now visible in the greater empowerment of the nation's intelligence agencies. In recent weeks, the FBI has given its undercover agents new rules that allow them to conduct surveillance in public places, such as at mosques, even if there's no evidence of criminal activity. Since 9/11, there has been renewed talk about the assassination of foreign leaders or agents by intelligence operatives, something that has been an anathema for more than two decades.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are promising to act swiftly to create a new Department of Homeland Security, which would further enshrine some of the expanded powers of intelligence-gathering and arrest among various federal agencies.

Some of these moves roll back the spirit, if the not the letter, of restraints enacted after the so-called Church committee in 1975. Named after the late Sen. Frank Church, it was established to look into some of the intelligence-gathering abuses of the Watergate era. One of its chief legacies was to create congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies.

"You end up [today] with not that much pressure for scrutiny, and [Congress] shifting away from a desire to be a watchdog to one of being a friendly observer," says Mr. Ashby, co-author of a biography of Church.

Goodbye independent counsel

One indisputable reversal of Watergate-era reforms was the quiet death of the independent-counsel law three years ago. That law stemmed from the so-called "Saturday night massacre" of Oct. 20, 1973, when President Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Rather than carry out the order, the attorney general and his deputy resigned.

In 1978, Congress passed an ethics law that authorized the attorney general to seek a court-appointed independent counsel – one who could not be easily removed by an angered president. But with independence often came a zeal for investigation that burned both political parties, and in the wake of Kenneth Starr's investigation of Mr. Clinton, Congress let the law expire.

Campaign reform, then and now

Watergate also produced a host of reforms relating to campaign financing – removing party slush funds, requiring disclosure of the president's personal finances, and regular reporting of contributions to political campaigns. Those and other changes are still in place today, and in some cases have injected more accountability into the system. But in other cases, parties and politicians have found ways to circumvent the laws.

"Watergate raised everybody's consciousness about campaign-finance issues," says Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. But "it's been a never-ending process of putting laws into effect, then watching people figure out how to get around them."

Still, some elements that came out of the Watergate crucible have become so much a part of political life that they won't disappear, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University here.

"Watergate lessons are related to campaign finance, primarily, and governance transparency and the role of the media. That has changed for the good, and we'll never go back," he says.

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