Ethics in Government

May 16, 1973

Report Outline
New Concern Over Government Ethics
Recurrence of Corruption in Politics
Post-Watergate Proposals for Reform
Special Focus

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.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Ethics in Government
Jan. 31, 2014  Whistleblowers
Feb. 18, 2011  Lies and Politics
Apr. 30, 2010  Gridlock in Washington
Jun. 22, 2007  Prosecutors and Politics
Jun. 16, 2006  Pork Barrel Politics
May 07, 1999  Independent Counsels Re-Examined
Feb. 21, 1997  Independent Counsels
May 27, 1994  Political Scandals
Apr. 06, 1979  Assassinations Investigation
Dec. 05, 1973  Presidential Impeachment
May 16, 1973  Ethics in Government
May 10, 1961  Secret Societies and Political Action
Jun. 29, 1960  Conflicts of Interest
Oct. 26, 1955  Businessmen in Government
Apr. 07, 1954  Fair Investigations
Apr. 25, 1952  Congressional Immunity
Dec. 05, 1951  Ethics in Government
Jan. 28, 1948  Individual Rights and Congressional Investigations
Jul. 02, 1934  Political Reform and Federal Patronage
Mar. 07, 1924  Congressional Extravagance and the Budget
Nov. 12, 1923  Issues Developed in the Teapot Dome Inquiry
Campaign Finance
Campaign Finance
Investigations and Discipline