Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Annals of Spin: The Greatest Spin Line Ever

I'll get to more of the narrative later, but I want to separately mark the anniversary of the greatest spin ever: Ron Ziegler's line that the Watergate break-in was a "third-rate burglary attempt."

It's perfect. Going back to front...the word "attempt" is often omitted, but it's good: it keeps the emphasis on the idea that nothing really happened. Of course, that was a kind of lie, although I don't believe that Ziegler knew that (or anything else beyond what was in the newspapers and the bland campaign statement the previous day). In fact, this "attempt" was the second break-in at the Watergate, and one in a long series of illegal acts, unethical acts, or just things that would look terrible if exposed. But no; it was just an "attempt."

Burglary. Watergate wasn't a burglary! Even from what was in the newspapers then, it was clearly some sort of campaign espionage. Calling it a burglary, rather than a break-in or a black-bag job or a bugging expedition or dirty tricks, is a great way to play down the seriousness of it and distract from the trail that goes from Watergate to everything else that it goes to.

And to cap it off: third-rate. What exactly was third-rate about the Watergate break-in? Nixon and others will soon argue that the target was third-rate. That's a complicated question, I suppose (if they wound up with a stupid target, does that make the crime any less serious)? Third-rate -- it certainly is true that the operatives (the "burglars", as we all call them) were incompetent, or at least left a trail of mistakes and screw-ups throughout their work both for the campaign and the White House. Were either of these things important? Not really. And yet calling the thing third-rate is just perfectly dismissive.

Did it "matter"? I have no idea. In large ways, no. But in small ways...well, the cover-up really never ended, and part of that has always been the job of minimizing what Watergate was really about, and Ziegler's gem was a piece of that -- in 1972 through 1974, and then on through the argument of history. Sure.

Of course, among the many reasons that Watergate was a great political story are the great phrases. Ziegler's "third-rate burglary attempt" was the first of these, and it's a good one.


  1. OK so Im a little too young for the Watergate era. Most of what I know about it actually probably comes from this blog. I only first heard this phrase a few days ago on a quick news item noting the anniversary. And it just struck me as...incoherent as spin. I mean nothing about that phrase seems to mitigate the seriousness of the act or serve to distance the WH from its commission. It honestly sounds like a phrase a partisan media figure (from the other side) would use to describe it.

    So maybe Im just misunderstanding the timeline or the dynamic or what the public knew and when did they know it. Or maybe news consumers back then were just really unsophisticated when it came to being spun.

    1. Anon, if you're learning about Watergate from this blog, you're experiencing it inside-out compared to the way it originally unfolded. JB has been giving us the background and buildup, so that by the time the burglary happens and the thing first appears in the news, we already know who's involved and what it's all about. Although I don't remember the very beginning (I was also a bit young), my impression from the time is that a presidential campaign was underway, it was going more or less normally for the time, and then there's this break-in that seems possibly connected but is nothing major or politically consequential (which is why the Washington Post put local police reporters on it, not national political correspondents). It came out early that a couple of the burglars had connections to Nixon, but it wasn't until the judge squeezed them and a grand jury started investigating and Woodward / Bernstein started publishing leaks from this that it was clear that the operation had been paid for out of funds from Nixon's re-election committee, and then that those funds had been under the control of Nixon's top people, meaning they had probably authorized it. All that took months, in fact was still pretty unclear at the time of the election, and it's the set of connections that "third-rate burglary attempt" was meant to distract from, as JB says. Then, the fact that all this was part of a larger operation involving "dirty tricks" and "White House plumbers" and other break-ins and so forth was another whole set of later disclosures. Forty years ago today, the public didn't know any of that yet.

  2. Who was harmed by Watergate? What elections were rigged or stolen? Who died, who was injured, who suffered grievous wrong? No-one.

    That's why the whole thing is best viewed as a third-rate burglary attempt - because it's all so trivial. The two most recent Presidents have each committed far more serious illegalities, but instead a certain kind of mind would rather talk about Watergate.

    1. Softball question, but OK. If presidential elections are rigged through espionage, blackmail and payola, then democracy is not happening -- we're talking about the tactics of banana republics (although the comparison is unfair to bananas). The fact that worse didn't happen in this case was due to the ineptitude of the bad guys and the residual respect for law that the system was still able to manage back then. But their intent was to ensure that the Leader of the Free World was chosen according to their private decisions rather than fairly and publicly. If you want to write this off as unimportant, you should be prepared, as a general principle, to say that you don't care whether American elections are fraudulent or not.

    2. Two things. One: what Jeff said. IMO, it's perfectly okay not to be a fan of democracy. But if you do believe that democracy is important, then clearly Watergate was a crime against democracy.

      Two: and, yet, one can certainly argue that X other crime (or event, criminal or not) was more serious. Fine! I'm interested in Watergate because it's a great story; because Nixon is IMO fascinating; because it is, to be sure, an important crime; because regardless of why it's surely important that a president resigned over it; and because it demonstrates a lot of very important things about how the presidency and the American political system work.

    3. But how was Watergate a crime against democracy? They weren't talking about stuffing ballot boxes, they were trying to get inside information on what the other campaign was up to. If they'd had plants inside the DNC it would have ended at the same place - and been no crime. To me, the crime against democracy is the soft coup against a duly elected (and enormously popular) President.

      I would certainly agree that it's important in the sense that a President resigned and it demonstrates important things. But to me, what it demonstrates is that

      1) the Washington establishment is more important than democratic legitimacy
      2) if you are unpopular with them, they will hang you for nothing, but if you are popular with them, you can get away with (nearly) anything

    4. Anon,

      I recommend the Woodward & Bernstein primer on what Watergate was about (linked above).

    5. I probably shouldn't feed the troll, but here goes:

      1. the Watergate break-in, and all its peripheral shenanigans that came out later (esp. ratfucking, but also slush funds, etc.) absolutely took away from the American people the ability to honestly choose their leaders. If you can't comprehend that, go read a fucking history book (I recommend Rick Perlstein's NIXONLAND, and Dan Rather's THE PALACE GUARD is an excellent contemporary perspective).

      2. More importantly for present-day campaigns, Watergate NORMALIZED some horrifically egregious shit. Every politician's campaign staff, to a greater or lesser degree, has "war rooms", and various "operatives" whose job it is to do things that the candidate doesn't want to know about. And in the small number of cases where candidates don't have that kind of arrangement, the American public properly assumes anyway that they do.

      3. Watergate also normalized lawbreaking by government (see "If the President does it, it can't be illegal"), leading to a remarkable development of ennui in the American public. Ronald Reagan should have been crucified/impeached/jailed over fighting illegal undeclared wars, fueled by drug sales, in Central America. Instead, the public response ranged from "meh" to "Ollie North for president!" GHWB flat-out pardoned the few scumbags who were actually convicted over Iran-Contra, and regardless of his other faults, those pardons did not affect his political career. Before Watergate, a scandal the size of Iran-Contra would have been instant pack-your-bags for those involved.

    6. Another useful "primer" is the articles of impeachment:


      Two points: As these say, the bugging / break-in was not just a case of the White House spying on the opposition party, it was part of a broader effort to corrupt federal agencies so they would serve one particular politician and his group instead of the people.

      Second, I suppose you can call the House of Representatives "the Washington establishment," but they're all elected in their own right and were all aware that voters could be mad at them if they impeached a popular president. And yet, all but about two members were prepared by the end to vote to impeach Nixon, and the Republican leaders of the Senate informed him that he'd lost GOP support in the Senate as well. That's why he resigned. According to polling at the time, the pardon of Nixon a month later was hugely unpopular, and it probably cost Ford the '76 election. So it's hard to make the case that this was a "soft coup" by a Washington establishment, or by Nixon's opponents, against the wishes of the people. Once Watergate was fully understood, Nixon's opponents WERE the people.

    7. What Jeff said, except for one thing: even by summer 1974, it wasn't fully understood, because most of the tapes still hadn't come out, and so it still wasn't clear how thoroughly Nixon was personally involved in both the "White House horrors" pre-June 1972 and the cover-up afterwords.


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