Watergate was politics as usual. Nixon just got caught.
“There is an assumption that politics have always been corrupt,” one NBC retrospective on Watergate posited in 2004, “and that Nixon just got caught.” In his sweeping book on the 1970s, historian Bruce Schulman noted that the sentiment was widespread, even in the immediate aftermath of Watergate: “‘They all did it, Nixon just got caught,’ is what many Americans believed.”
In 1977, the conservative journalist Victor Lasky published “It Didn’t Start With Watergate,” a thick dossier on the sins of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. He had plenty of material to work with. The anti-New Deal congressman Hamilton Fish III claimed that FDR had something like an enemies list, that he was on it and that he was subjected to years of punitive tax audits because of it. President Lyndon Johnson prevented a congressional investigation of a corrupt former aide, Bobby Baker, first by pressuring friendly senators on the relevant committee to quash it, then by managing to get it postponed until after the 1964 election. And so on.
But the proven activities of the Nixon White House far surpassed anything Johnson or FDR were ever accused of. Nixon was adamant in his attempts to find wrongdoing from President John F. Kennedy’s administration, which was an object of personal hatred on account of his intense loathing of the personable and handsome JFK — at one point Nixon even ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution. (Deputies quietly buried the project.) Despite his extraordinary efforts, Nixon was so unsuccessful in implicating Kennedy in Watergate-level wrongdoing that, in one of his administration’s most bizarre incidents, his aide Charles Colson ordered “cables” to be forged, using scissors and glue, to falsely suggest that Kennedy ordered the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.