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No One Died in Watergate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Forty years ago, an incumbent president was cruising comfortably toward a massive November mandate and a second term. He did this while what was later referred to as a “cancer” was already eating away at his presidency—and eventual legacy.

The Watergate break in occurred a little less than five months before Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in a landslide on November 7, 1972. By all accounts, the “third-rate burglary” at DNC headquarters that previous June was not on the mind of the average voter. Of course, this soon gave way to an escalating scandal that polarized the nation and paralyzed the government. By late April 1973, the White House had been rocked by resignations and firings and Nixon’s political ship was taking on significant water.

There are, of course, significant differences between then and now—but I think a case can be made that should President Obama win a second term, he may very well face the kind of music he has somehow stayed above during this current campaign. If he wins, it won’t be a Nixonian landslide—but he may very well find himself mired in a Watergate-like experience as the details about what is now referred to as Benghazi-gate emerge and become unavoidable—and undeniable.

Second terms seldom turn out really well for incumbents. Recent history may even suggest that any president who wants a second term should possibly have his head examined. It’s a classic case of the adage, “be careful what you ask for.” Too many presidents, re-elected in triumph, have eventually left office extremely unpopular. And should Mr. Obama somehow squeak by on November 6th, there are clear signs that his future could very well be one of frustration and failure.

Will Benghazi become Barack Obama’s Watergate? Quite possibly—and not just as the latest political application of the appendage, “gate”—but because there is actually some “there” there.

It is just a matter of time before someone breaks rank and blows a whistle. And the famous Howard Baker query from way back when—“What did the president know and when did he know it?”—may soon be heard more and more and grow to haunt the White House.

It is the nature of the escalation of a scandal involving more than smoke and mirrors that someone who has been thrown under the proverbial bus will finally say, “Enough.” Forty years ago, it was a guy named James McCord (one of the Watergate burglars). He handed a note to a judge and soon the story had new legs. Of course, there were a couple of ambitious reporters on the trail doing the spadework. But it would be a while before the rest of the media would take them or their story seriously.

Mark Twain famously suggested that history may not always repeat itself, but it did sometimes rhyme. And there are elements of the whole story about the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that seem to rhyme with Watergate.

First, what is happening internationally is not what Mr. Obama wants to talk about—it’s not his passion. The “fundamental transformation” of America is. He is a community organizer at heart and domestic issues are at the forefront of his political philosophy. Foreign affairs are a distraction, at best, and clearly now a very inconvenient focus. Nixon, on the other hand, had a passion for foreign affairs and his eyes glazed over when it came to domestic issues. He delegated that kind of stuff to others. In both cases, the primary focus created a blind side, by default.

Second, the mainstream media was relatively slow to cover Watergate. In those days, of course, the media was much smaller and largely controlled by a few major outlets. There were only three television networks and newspapers were still quite influential. Yet, even though the networks and major papers were decidedly anti-Nixon, they didn’t develop any real passion for the Watergate story until well after Nixon was re-elected.

Then the floodgates opened.

These days, Fox News, conservative talk radio, and a handful of periodicals are playing the Woodward and Bernstein role, while the mainstream media gives the White House a pass. But should the president find himself in the Oval Office on January 21, 2013, this will change, resignedly—maybe even, reluctantly by some—but it will change.

Finally, there are powerful interests and elements in government being thrown under the bus for temporal and expedient political purposes right now. It is only a matter of time before this big-tent cover up will start to get shaky. A tent pole here, another there, and the canvas will sag and then fall—but not before many more scramble out from under it and into the arms of a by-then welcoming media.

President Obama’s foreign policy has been a monumental failure and what happened on September 11th in Benghazi, Libya will endure as a glaring and very troubling example of this. Quite frankly, the systemic cover-up and the various terminological inexactitudes coming from the White House point to a scandal in the same league as the Watergate of 40 years ago—but with one critical difference.

No one died in Watergate.

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