Democrats now sound like Republicans after Nixon's Watergate

"I will not comment on a third-rate burglary attempt. Obviously we don't condone that kind of second-rate burglary."

--Ronald Ziegler, President Richard Nixon's press secretary's response to media inquiries about whether the White House had anything to do with the Watergate burglary

"There's no there there."

--President Barack Obama's response to stories inquiring if the White House, for political purposes, revised its narrative about the murders by terrorists of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya

Lately there have been all kinds of comparisons between Obama's scandal trifecta (IRS, Benghazi and spying on reporters with Nixon's conspiracy to cover up his involvement in the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters.

Ron Ziegler

Ron Ziegler

For most of today's Americans, born after the Watergate

Jay Carney

Jay Carney

scandal broke 41 years ago, such comparisons are neither instructive nor interesting. But for old coots like myself who were in the newspaper racket during this wrenching period, Watergate is very much alive in memory. For me, at least, there are striking similarities in the reactions to Watergate and Obama's budding Internal Revenue Service, Benghazi and press scandals.

Today's Democrats, in their downplaying and belittling of the potential seriousness of the three episodes bedeviling the Obama administration, sound much like the Republicans of 1972 and 1973 who scorned the media and Democrats who pressed for full disclosure of the Watergate collusions.

"It's too preposterous to think the president or his senior staff could be involved." "Let's move on." "What difference does it make?" "It's all politically motivated." "Character assassination." "Shabby journalism." The reactions across four decades are almost indistinguishable, except for the main actors trading places.

Then-Vice President Gerald Ford: "There's no substance to it. Some underlings undertook a stupid action."

"I can say categorically that ... no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident," lied Nixon two months after the Watergate break-in. Then seven months later, after three top aides were fired for their role in the scandal, Nixon declared in a speech to the nation: "There can be no whitewash at the White House." The hell, he says.

It's all too familiar, too interesting, too amusing and too scary.

"Let's get the facts before we jump the gun and convict anyone," is the general refrain from Obama apologists. Precisely so. The problem is that the hoo-ha in the months following the Watergate arrests and in the coming months as the Obama scandals percolate were and are about extracting the facts and truth — from officials who take the Fifth Amendment, who deny any knowledge on anyone's part and then are made to look foolish for having changed the story, who give non-answer answers, and more. In calling for the facts before making a judgment, both Nixon and Obama supporters were and are fighting the disclosure of those facts. Maybe we need to bring back the verb "stonewall," made so popular by Watergate.

Some Republicans want us to tone down our demands for full disclosure. They warn that stirring up this ruckus now will only backfire by creating public sympathy for Obama. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said recently: "(The) one advice I give to Republicans is stop calling it a huge scandal. Stop saying it's a Watergate. Stop saying it's Iran-Contra. Let the facts speak for themselves." Some conservatives point out that Republicans lost some seats in Congress after the Watergate affair was wrapped up.

Fine. It was worth the political cost to force the felonious Nixon to leave office.

Looking back now, the journalists, politicos and others who fought the Nixon coverup are rightfully praised as heroes. Those who sided with Nixon now are regarded as being "on the wrong side of history." The same goes for the two sides during President Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal.

Even more praiseworthy were those who defied party loyalty to get to the bottom of things. They are the ones who finally broke open the scandal and forever cleansed the American government of Nixon. During the Watergate investigation, you could credit the likes of Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., R-Conn., who, long before the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (of which he was a member) began investigating Watergate, publicly pushed to expose links to the White House.

We'll have to wait to see if any of today's Democrats are as principled and courageous.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune 

Order my new historical novel, Madness: The War of 1812, from Amazon 

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  • All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

    “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience”

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