Jack Ohman

Benghazigate, IRSgate, and Watergate: Can we all close the -gate on this phrase?

I'm not sure what the news media used to say before Watergate (c) (formerly an oddly-designed apartment building and now a catch-all phrase for any public policy malfeasance) happened. 

I was around at the time Watergate happened, was reading the newspapers and news magazines, and it was about 50 years after the Teapot Dome Scandal, and I simply do not recall everyone going around saying Watergate was another Teapot Dome Scandal, or a Credit Mobilier Scandal (U.S. Grant era). Maybe history professors did, but Watergate just kind of became its own massive, and I mean massive, scandal unto itself.

Let's review:

--The president of the United States ordered a cover-up of not just the Watergate break-in but breaking into a private psychiatrist's office whose patient was the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers. He also tried to set up John Dean, his White House counsel, as the fall guy to take the blame for it. It's also pretty likely he destroyed evidence.

He had to resign.

--The vice president of the United States took bribes while governor of Maryland.

He had to resign.

--The attorney general (working simulaneously as the president's campaign manager, unbelievably enough) green-lighted a team of black bag operatives, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign funds were moved around so that this team could operate. They did all sort of "dirty tricks," like forge letters about major Democratic presidential candidates -- tres amusing!

He went to jail.

--Practically every senior person in the White House staff was implicated. Many of them went to jail, chief among them H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

--Several members of the cabinet had to resign.

--The president ordered the firing of the next attorney general because he wouldn't fire a special prosecutor, and the nation wound up having three attorney generals in about 15 minutes because no one would fire the special prosecutor.

--The CIA was at war with the FBI. The FBI director ordered all sorts of dreadful things and had done so for decades. 

OK. So. That's all I can think of right off the top of my head. I didn't Google any of it.

The past few weeks, we've been hearing about several events being compared to Watergate, as the news media loves to add the suffix "-gate" to everything. Koreagate. Irancontragate. Monicagate. 

Please stop us before we -gate again. 

The top two current candigates are the events surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi, where our ambassador and several embassy staffers others were assassinated, a truly dreadful event. The other is the disclosure that a few people in the IRS field office in Cincinnati, Ohio, used some keywords to search groups filing for the ambiguous tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status, which no one is really talking about in the news media right now because it's, you know, complicated.

And has numbers.

Of course, the IRS shouldn't have done this. And, of course, it looks bad. Very. Emphasis on looks. But is it an actual Gateworthy News Event?

I doubt it. Screw-ups are not Watergates. They're just screw-ups. 

To illustrate just how pervasive Watergate was, and how hard it was for the American people to see how bad it really was, the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17, 1972, with non-stop news coverage, and five months later, President Nixon won the largest re-election landslide of all time: he carried 49 states, many of which had access to television news and newspapers. 

So it hadn't really sunk in yet. 

I once gave a speech about 20 years ago, and someone asked me what got me interested in politics. I said, "Oh, Watergate. I loved Watergate. I thought Watergate was wonderful. It was my hobby."

After the speech, a woman of about 60 came up to me. She said, "Jack, I really enjoyed your talk."

"Thanks, ma'am."

"I was particularly interested in your remarks about Watergate."

"Yeah, I loved Watergate."

"I had a personal experience with Watergate," she said, sweetly.

"Oh? What was that?"

"I was Mrs. John Ehrlichman."


When I was about 20, I met John Ehrlichman. He spent 18 months in prison. That's a long time, and he seemed very sincere and repentant for what he had done. I really liked him, a lot. He was very articulate, warm and charming. He died awhile back, and I was sorry to hear it.

I wonder what he would say now if he could see these pretty minor events being compared to Watergate.

He'd probably say it was a tempest in a Teapot Dome.