This summer, 40 years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate, the onetime White House counsel who famously called the scandal a “cancer on the presidency” surfaced with a new book. In “The Nixon Defense,” John Dean revisited the coverup with an examination of more than 600 additional tapes from Nixon’s secret recording system. The verdict: The 37th president was even guiltier than we all believed.
But it’s time to revisit something else from that era: the reforms inspired by the mistrust of government that Watergate helped engender.
Following the deceptions of Vietnam and Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia, the Watergate scandal deeply wounded our nation’s faith in government. The campaigns for “good government,” aided by the conservative notion that “government is the problem,” propelled a series of reforms aimed at transparency, openness and the monitoring of decision-making.
These reforms included the passage or strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Government in the Sunshine Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as well as a series of changes in the congressional committee process. They had a noble purpose: to restore public confidence in government by providing insight into its workings and greater access to the deliberative process.
But while openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests. Most government staff now operate under the principle of “don’t write that down” and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect. Even text messages are targeted and, given the capability to digitize phone conversations, there could soon be even less room for private thought and consideration.