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
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT