Fifty years after Watergate, democracy faces serious threats in the United States and across the world.
The events preceding and culminating in the insurrection on January 6 were unprecedented in American history. Authoritarian regimes have come to power in many countries. Now, more than ever, reflecting on what worked during Watergate – and which reforms are still needed – is crucial.
A persistent, thorough, and impartial investigation led to the resignation of President Nixon and the prosecution and conviction of many others. But it is easy to forget that the Watergate scandal easily could have come out differently and that the country and its commitment to the rule of law would have been irreparably damaged.
During Watergate, it took all of the branches of government to uncover what happened and to pursue justice. Hearings in the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities and debates on the articles of impeachment by the House Committee on the Judiciary were crucial in presenting essential information to the public about what took place and educating Americans about the complicated process of impeachment and whether or not it was warranted. The work of the Special Prosecutors and their staffs, especially under the leadership of Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, exemplified the importance of impartial investigations and prosecutions. The courts, particularly federal district court Judge John Sirica and the United States Supreme Court in its unanimous ruling in United States v. Nixon, upheld the Constitution.
We also saw during Watergate the importance of a free press. It was the press that helped uncover the links between the Watergate break-in and the Campaign to Reelect the President. And it was the dogged efforts of the press that revealed the cover-up and live gavel-to-gavel television coverage of congressional hearings that helped inform the public and turn public opinion about the Watergate cover-up.
Although it would be a mistake to say that this was bipartisan at all stages, there was cooperation across the political aisle and a shared commitment to upholding the rule of law. One must wonder what would have happened if Watergate occurred in our deeply politically polarized time.
The aftermath brought many needed reforms in government. The scandal revealed the need for campaign finance reform, for responsible independent prosecutors when there are allegations of misconduct at the highest levels of government, and for greater transparency through the disclosure of government records. Unfortunately, some of these reforms were short-lived. For example, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional some key aspects of the federal laws reforming campaign finance.
Ultimately, democracy depends on the rule of law. And the rule of law requires a concerted effort to continue to ensure that no one ever is above the law. The critical work of upholding our democracy continues today in the wake of January 6, and every American has a role to play in the process.
Erwin Chemerinsky is Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.