New Concern Over Government Ethics
Multiple Ethical Implications of Watergate Scandel
As shock waves from the Watergate scandal continue to spread across the nation, Americans find themselves grappling anew with deep and difficult questions about ethics in government. The ethical implications of the series of events which have taken the name of Watergate are multiple, touching upon fundamental but often unexpressed fears in the minds of many citizens about the potential for misuse of power in high councils of government. Watergate is profoundly different from any other scandal in the nation's history, and that is perhaps why reactions to the affair have ranged from confusion to indifference to cynicism to anxiety.
What makes Watergate unique in two centuries of American political life is the nature and purpose of the misuse of power. Almost without exception, past scandals in government at all levels have involved betrayals of the public trust for the sake of money or goods. Greed, graft, patronage, fraud, bribery, theft, favoritism, cronyism, conflicts of interest—these have been the chief sins of past corruption. But in the Watergate scandal, although enormous amounts of money were indeed involved, the ultimate aim seems to have been to undermine the American political system itself, to “fix” a national presidential election. Concomitant to that came the wholesale disregard of federal and state laws. Although the investigations, indictments and prosecutions associated with Watergate have just begun, that is the unescapable conclusion of the evidence which has been revealed thus far.
The Washington Post, which won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for its relentless reporting of Watergate, editorialized on May 6: “This has not been a case of the misuse of influence or power for the sake of acquiring money. It has been just the other way around: money has been misused for the sake of acquiring power—and more power.” Furthermore, the awesome power of the executive branch apparently then was applied to obscure and conceal its own abuses through denials, lies, threats and payoffs in a broad attempted cover-up. Recent evidence has emerged indicating that the Watergate scandal touched not just the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President, but also the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Such a wide sweep of implication enfeebles efforts to label Watergate “just another scandal” in U.S. history. Even a conservative accounting of the possible crimes committed in the Watergate affair includes burglary, bugging, wiretapping, perjury, bribery, theft, forgery, conspiracy, tampering with witnesses, misrepresentation of facts material to an investigation, destruction of official records, obstruction of justice and misconduct in public office. “Such crimes constitute more than dirty business or a threat to the freedom of the vote,” former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg has written. “They undermine the premise which has been fundamental to our legal system since Magna Carta, that government is under, not above, the law.”