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Nixon Exceptionalism: What Woodward and Bernstein got wrong about Watergate

At 2 a.m. yesterday, the Watergate scandal turned 40. Maybe it was appropriate that most of America slept through the occasion.

I can tell you exactly where it was the night when it all went down, when those burglars were arrested inside the Watergate Hotel. I was asleep in my bedroom in a suburb of New York, a 13-year-old boy, still trying to make sense of this strange world I'd been born into, where police in blue helmets fought young people in the street, and great men were gunned down in their prime. The arrest of the Watergate, burglars may have happened in the dead of night, but what came in the months ahead was truly an awakening.

This was our time, our story. My friends' older brothers and sisters had Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock and Kent State. But we were the backwash of the Baby Boom. We had Watergate.

From the age of 13 to 15, I embraced the scandal with all the geek force that puberty could muster. Sunburned from swimming laps in the forced labor of summer recreation camp, I raced home so I could catch John Dean's afternoon testimony before the Senate Watergate committee, and the next summer I read the paperback version of the committee's report by flashlight at a campground along the Delaware River, while raccoons scurried under my tent. There are still, somewhere, embarrassing, Instagram-quality pictures of me wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a reel-to-reel tape-recorder that said, "Property of the Watergate Bugging Team."

It wasn't just me -- a culture was defined. Listen to the music that blared in static-y mono glory from 77, WABC, on the beach those Watergate summers, from Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Now Watergate does not bother me...") to David Bowie ("Do you remember your President Nixon?").  The Watergate scandal may officially date to June 17, 1972, but August 8, 1974 was truly the night they drove ol' Dixie down, as it were; I watched with a sense of awe and disbelief on a 13-inch black-and-white set as our President Nixon resigned, refusing to go to bed, watching his "political obituary" until they finally signed off and played the Star Spangled Banner at 2 a.m.

By the time the movie of "All the President's Men" -- the tale of how Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke some of the big stories of Watergate -- hit the theaters, I was 17 and seeing it with my first girlfriend. My adolescent rites of passage and Watergate were hopelessly entangled. I may have been an extreme case, but not a unique one. The next year, when I entered college determined to be a reporter just like the guys that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman had portrayed on the screen, there was a surge in enrollment in journalism schools.

I suspect that most people from the generations that came after mine don't really know that much about Watergate other than that a president resigned in disgrace, the only time that's ever happened. It was very complicated, then and now. The Twitter-sized version is the president had a goon squad that did all kinds of buggings and break-ins and political dirty tricks, and when those burglars with ties to the White House were busted 40 years ago, Nixon and his top aides broke the law to cover it all up. But their crimes unraveled in slow motion over those two years -- aided by one tough judge, a feistier Congress than we could comprehend today, and some skillful journalists, of whom Woodward and Bernstein became the most famous and best remembered.

The greater significance of Watergate was something that was hard to grasp in 1974, but seems crystal clear now, at least to me. By June 17, 1972, what Hunter S. Thompson had famously called "the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…" of the 1960s had crashed and dissapiated. Five long years of unruly marches and campus takeovers hadn't toppled the Establishment. But then two by-the-book (sort of) dudes with wide ties and spiral notebooks -- Woodward and Bernstein -- came along in stoppage time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I can't tell you how many times back then that Americans -- looking for a silver lining in the cloud of Watergate -- uttered this phrase: "The system worked." The role of Congress and the courts -- where even Republicans refused to turn a blind eye to a Republican president's wrongdoing -- was critical to this belief, but it was the journalist at the very top of this moral pyramid. The idealized journalist of the Watergate era and beyond was wedded to the highest ethical standards and driven only by truth, not by ideology. These were the values, after all, that purged America of the evil Richard Nixon -- not the dirty (bleep)ing hippies.

So much has happened since then. We're lucky to have Woodward and Bernstein -- so young in 1972 -- still with us. And so the other day they wrote a lengthy piece  -- their first joint byline in 36 years -- trying to correct all the myths about Watergate that have risen in the years since. To many, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, where the burglars were bugging phones that belonged to the Democratic National Committee, and the ensuing cover-up still don't make sense.

But the new Woodward and Bernstein piece was remarkably good, in a sense, of placing the crimes of the Nixon White House in a broader campaign of a war against lawful dissent to the Vietnam War that expanded to the media and the opposition Democrats. They wrote that history has shown that Watergate was even worse than we thought it was at the time:

In the course of his five-and-a-half-year presidency, beginning in 1969, Nixon launched and managed five successive and overlapping wars — against the anti-Vietnam War movement, the news media, the Democrats, the justice system and, finally, against history itself. All reflected a mind-set and a pattern of behavior that were uniquely and pervasively Nixon's: a willingness to disregard the law for political advantage, and a quest for dirt and secrets about his opponents as an organizing principle of his presidency.

This was the lesson of Watergate: Nixon Exceptionalism, that the 37th president was so "uniquely and pervasively" corrupt that the fair and decent American "system worked" and removed him on the basis of the objective, indisputable fact of his evil. It was a takedown that transcended politics, transcended ideology.

Make no mistake (as Nixon himself was fond of saying), what Woodward and Bernstein accomplished from 1972 to 1974 was incredible and deserving of all the accolades they received at the time. They were tireless young reporters, fearless and not intimidated by the very powerful people they were investigating. But even they seemed to take the wrong lessons from what they'd done.

Much of their hard work was a quest for access to anyone who knew the real secrets of the Nixon White House. When they found such a player in their legendary source "Deep Throat" -- later revealed as deputy FBI director Mark Felt -- they seemed blind to the reality that Felt wasn't motivated by an altruistic loyalty to the nation or the truth but by blind career ambition and petty revenge. Of course, after the fame of "All the President's Men." Woodward -- the one who stayed in the Beltway journalism racket --  had all the access to the highest level officials that he had craved at the start of Watergate, and yet he remained clueless as to how such access could provide as much disinformation as truth.

Beyond that, the deeper problem of Nixon Exceptionalism is that it established new standards for what constituted presidential misconduct -- standards that weren't based on the discredited ideas of the 1960s, but the "objective" standards of the Watergate era. The truth that few wanted to confront was Nixon wasn't really unique at all -- just a peculiarly rotten and inept defender of a system, the national security state, that actually didn't work at all, that was corrupt to its very core. After a brief period of national self-examination and a few watered-down post-Watergate reforms, the sins that Woodward and Bernstein attribute uniquely to Nixon, including the squelching of dissent and the discrediting of journalism, resumed with an intensity just as great as the early 1970s.

Nixon Exceptionalism and the triumph of objectivity kept a focus on "what did the president know and when did he know it," the provable fact-based lie, liberated from anything that might be corrupted by debatable policy or ideas. Since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan closed the lid on the post-Watergate era, we've seen a president who WASN'T impeached for evading Congress to cut secret arms deals in Iran and fund a secret war in Nicaragua, a president who WAS impeached for lying about his sex life, and a president who WASN'T impeached for lying the nation into a war that killed thousands of American soldiers and innocent civilians, while carrying out torture and other violations of human rights more "perverse" than anything during Nixon's presidency.

George W. Bush's Iraq War, in particular, was enabled by a docile press corps and by a feckless generation of lawmakers and judges -- largely the generation that came of age when I did, during those languid Watergate summers. Bob Woodward was at the very head of that pack, flaunting his access to the Bush White House while failing to ask the only question that really mattered.

Not, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

But, "Is what the president doing moral?"

The real crimes of the last 40 years -- the political power of an American kleptocarcy that has crushed the nation's middle class, the state of permanent wars abroad and the loss of the public square to a militarized police force at home -- didn't fit into the box that Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate scandal helped to create. In the end, the real exceptionalism of Richard Nixon was merely that he was dumb enough to get caught. The rest of them all got away with it.

For me, the still powerful memories of Watergate have been supplanted by fresher ones. In a very different summer -- 2011 -- I had the good fortune to visit Spain with my family shortly before sending my daughter off to college. And there we watched thousands of "indignados" flood the streets of Madrid, the precursor to Occupy Wall Street back home. The young protesters were arguably unlearning the false lessons of Watergate, that meaningful social change had to come from pounding the pavement, not just from pounding a keyboard.

I'm still struck by the words that were scrawled in Spanish on a building near our hotel, saying: It's not the party, it's the system.  Back at home, you could cross out the word "party" and replace it with "Nixon." It's the system.

That writing was actually on the wall the whole time. It took some of us from the Watergate generation a long time to see it. Some people haven't seen it yet.