The Meaning of Watergate

Bishop Emrick
Episcopal Bishop of Michigan

Bishop Emrick is retired Episcopal Bishop of Michigan.

He delivered this paper before Hillsdale College students and faculty during the first seminar this year of the Center for Constructive Alternatives, "Political Morality: From Socrates to Nixon."

A recent cartoon showed a man in a travel bureau saying, “I want a ticket to some place where I won’t hear about Watergate.” But in spite of the warning in that cartoon, this address (non-controversial and non-partisan) is on the subject because as Americans we ought to learn from Watergate; because we ought always, like Lincoln, to seek for the meaning of great events; because we ought to come from such an experience stronger citizens and deepened in faith; and because if we cannot, grounded in our tradition, see more deeply into events than others, then our tradition would not be true.

Because we all need steadying and deepening, because (as with Lincoln) we must see that God reigns in the great affairs of men and that He has a purpose for America in this chastening, I submit the following points—non-partisan and non-controversial. My sole purpose in this address is to strengthen faith and make us into wiser citizens.

For some years now we have been listening to angry voices attacking our institutions, our social structures and the system, the assumption being that an evil system is corrupting good men. There is scarcely an institution that has not come under fierce attack from strident and angry voices. Good men and a wicked system, good men and corrupting structures, good men and bad institutions—this is what we have heard. We have heard this thought, which comes from Rousseau and incites ingratitude and rebellion, more than most of us realize. We began to be apologetic about our government, our churches, and even marriage and the home.

But now in Watergate and all that the word implies, we are facing a more profound truth—that men corrupt good institutions, that the corruption must be traced back to the human heart, and that it is our much maligned institutions that are carrying us through this present storm. My first point is that in Watergate we see the strength, wisdom, and carrying power of institutions, and the weakness and corruptibility of men. We can recover through Watergate confidence in our institutions and an old realism about human nature.

When the Founding Fathers formed our government, they had, based upon Scripture, the wide study of history and their own experience and a deep skepticism about human nature. They knew that power has a tendency to corrupt, that men must be watched and records audited. And, therefore, they set up a system of checks and balances, free press, and freedom which led to parties which would constantly turn a searchlight on those in power.

In brief, they had human nature and things like Watergate in mind when they formed our government with its ability to correct.

Reform itself was designed with such corruption in mind. Sometimes we hear people say that we believe in a democratic form of government because we believe that men are good. That is more false than true. We hold to our form of government, rather, because we know that men cannot be trusted completely with power; therefore, we want the rule of law and checks and balances.

My first point, then, is that there is wisdom in the system, that we have a great form of government able to correct itself, that the attempt by men to misuse power should not surprise educated people, and that the system will save us. In spite of the inevitable imperfections of life, we must learn to see the value in our institutions—our homes, schools, churches, businesses, and government. When they are strong, our life is good. They are the carriers of the tradition that binds us to our fathers, they embody a corporate wisdom greater than that of any individual, and they carry us through storms. Thank God for the Constitution.

Our second point is that we should see in the whole Watergate scandal the reality and workings of moral law. That same moral law was broken by men in and around the White House, and the reverberations of that misuse of power have weakened the government, influenced our foreign policy, weakened the stock market, lowered the value of the dollar, and created a government crisis. It’s like the reverberation of thunder in the hills. Why? What is the moral law?

Well, it is a law which we did not make but discover, which we did not devise but observe, and which has been shown to us by revelation and reason—that our life together in home, school, business, government, and everywhere is based upon trust, honor, integrity, and reliability. That is a law as firm, in its own way, as the law of gravity. When Dr. Johnson was asked if there was honor and truth in hell, he replied in effect, “Of course, otherwise hell could not exist.” The same is true of the Mafia.

Therefore, when there was wrong-doing, bugging, deception, and the misuse of power, it had to be covered up, for no government can govern if trust is lost—the moral law. And then, of course, they had to cover up the cover-up, and then cover up the cover-up of the cover-up. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Government is weakened because trust is weakened, for the average man says quite reasonably, “If they have done this and that, what else have they done?” It’s the old story of the grandfather’s clock that struck 13. Not only was the last note absurd, but it cast doubt on all the other notes.

This is what Senator Sam Ervin meant when he quoted the seventh verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” He was saying with Paul that God is no weakly benevolent and sentimental grandpappy who does not particularly care about human evil. No, He rules His world so subtly, (sometimes) slowly, and often obviously that a man reaps what he sows. We do not make a fool of God, who creates and destroys, who judges men and nations.

One witness spoke of “The unbearable qualms of conscience,” and we can easily imagine the sleepless nights of some of the people involved. Subtly and inwardly we reap what we plant. But there is more. If a group of men bug, steal, plot, lie, and deceive in this connection and that connection, God has so structured His world that we begin to ask, “What else have they done? And what more will they do?” We reap the loss of trust and confidence that weakens the government and influences us all.

If one makes an enemy of the press, it is not surprising if some parts of the press express their enmity—”For with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” And if confidence is lost, how is it restored? That is the question with which the present government of the greatest nation on earth is now struggling. One witness was asked, “Since you may have given false testimony under oath on prior occasions, is there really any reason to believe your testimony before this committee?” We reap what we sow. God is not mocked.

The word “fear” as used in Scripture (“The fear of the Lord”) does not, as you know, mean terror, for terror destroys judgment and can cripple the soul. Instead, it means awe, respect, reverence, and veneration before Him who has made this world, holds it in His hand, and has the final power. And with that meaning of the word we say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This is the great underlying truth to be learned from the tragedy of Watergate.

In the light of our spiritual heritage, in the light of the divine common sense given to us by the Scriptures, in the light of the Law and the Gospel, we can say that Watergate was a supreme stupidity. Men thought in their arrogance that they were clever and wise—and they were fools. They ruined a presidency that had great promise. God is not mocked.

Third, what is the meaning of Watergate? When a child is punished without seeing the meaning and purpose of the punishment, it leads to bitterness and cynicism. So it is with us. What then is the purpose and meaning of the punishment we are now undergoing? It is this:

Fellow Americans of a differing political party were treated as if they were enemies—not as fellow-citizens in a different party, not as members of the loyal opposition with whom we debate, not as friends with whom we fiercely disagree, but as enemies whom you bug, to whom you lie, and from whom you steal. That, as Stewart Alsop says, is not politics—it is war. And that is why, no matter what the pain, this whole matter must be exposed, so thoroughly exposed that we corporately learn a lesson and cast such things from our midst.

The Civil War was so costly and so decisive that probably no statesman or state will ever again seriously advocate secession. We learned that lesson. We can hope that the Watergate affair was so costly and the judgment of the people so decisive that no politician or party will ever advocate such methods again, for our form of government could not survive if we ever adopted the practice of treating our political opponents as enemies.

And if someone reacts cynically and says, “Everyone does it, but these people just happened to be caught,” or “This thing is puffed up out of all proportion,” or “Why so much fuss about what simply would not receive much notice on a police blotter?” we must reply:

1. It is not true that everyone does it. There is honor in government as in all professions. If we react cynically, the essential poison of Watergate has entered into us.

2. While there is in a country as large as this one crookedness and conniving in various precincts and counties, that is quite a different matter from finding it inspired by the White House. If the heart is diseased, the whole body is in mortal danger.

3. It is, of course, true that big and awful things have been decided by men in power; things so awful that the taping of a door or a little piece of electronic equipment seem as nothing. But the big and awful decisions of men in power are defensible because of their necessity, because they are choices between evils, because nothing in politics can be considered right or wrong apart from the circumstances. And what circumstances, what other threatening evil, what necessity made this action defensible? It was the spirit of enmity, the deliberate misuse of power, and the assumption that some are above the laws that made this an evil that must be eradicated.

4. As a clergyman I have thought about our souls as we have watched the hearings and reacted to them. St. Paul says in First Corinthians XIII that, “Love does not rejoice in iniquity,” because he knows well that our grubby human race does rejoice in evil; and, like a gossip, licks its chops over the latest dirt. And we are not wrong when we say that some newspapers, partisan groups, and individuals have looked with relish upon the proceedings and hoped for the worst. They have rejoiced in iniquity.

But, if we love our country and feel the pain of scarred lives, if we love God and know that He wants malice toward none, we will know sorrow and compassion. Here are three considerations that can help to give us a proper perspective.

1. Our government has been weakened, and in a dangerous world it is the only government we have.

2. Suppose television and the great press services were to focus attention on the worst thing that you and I have ever done—that hidden matter that every man has on his conscience for which he needs forgiveness. In brief, what is your Watergate? What’s mine?

3. Watergate is really a symptom of a deep moral sickness and confusion in which the whole nation is involved. Have labor unions broken no laws to attain their ends? Has big business greased the palms of no politicians? Can we teach Madison Avenue anything about twisting the truth?

This does not mean that we will not condemn the evil of Watergate, but it does mean that we will do so with sorrow, and without a blind self-righteousness, without hard hearts, and without hurting our souls.

Looking into the inner lives of men, we may ask how do things like Watergate happen? Let me venture a theory, basing it on the thought of St. Paul, who, you will remember, says that the visible world is temporal, but that the invisible world is eternal. Let me contrast our experience in the visible and invisible world.

The visible world is all around us—the hills, the college, the sports, the buying and selling, the traffic, etc. It is real, vivid, fascinating, in the foreground, and while it eventually passes away, it currently absorbs most of our interest. It is obvious, although it also contains hidden and mysterious depths.

The unseen world also is real, albeit different. It seems to be somewhat in the background of life, not so vivid, oftentimes hidden, and to many people, therefore, not so real as what they can see, hear, and handle. But like St. Paul we experience the transience of this visible world against an eternal background. We have an experience of the permanent in the midst of change, and we commune with this eternal world when our hearts are thankful, when we have a sense of obligation, guilt, awe, wonder, and a peace this world cannot give. The central business of religion is to keep us in the right relation to the world invisible.

As a boy I would come in from play, from baseball, from wrestling with my brother in this visible world, and when we gathered at the table for a meal, we bowed our heads before the world invisible, thanking the unseen Giver for His visible gifts, the invisible Creator for the creation. The food on the table was real and my grinning brother was real, but the unseen world (particularly to a child) was less vivid, somewhat in the background, a little vague.

But I think I knew, even as a boy, that this unseen world determined the character and atmosphere of my home, determined the way we behaved and treated each other, and that the unseen world permeated the visible world.

Now in Watergate I suspect that something like this happened: Caught up in the exciting, important, and visible world of power and politics, some men crowded this world invisible out of their deep consciousness. They did not, so to speak, bow their heads. They were not reverent. They said, as others have said before them, that they were “realists”; that what is real is visible power; that men do not commune with an invisible world—they imagine it; that it is not real—men invent it; that “politics is politics” as “business is business.” In place of a profound awe and reverence they put a visible loyalty. And so instead of being God-fearing, sober and wise, they became manipulators and wheeler-dealers.

When one man stated that he placed the re-election of the President above any other consideration, as the completely top priority, he was saying that he put this cause above the invisible world—and that is idolatry, a breaking of the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” The opposite of reverence is proud rebellion, casting aside all limitations on our conduct, setting ourselves above the laws of God and man. That is how Watergate happened, and this is the cause of most of the tragedies of history. John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, said a noble thing about one of his friends: “He always lived as one who was in touch with an unseen world.”

Another point for the good of our souls: put on your poetic hat for a moment and see that when the Devil comes to men, he does not knock on the front door and hand us his calling card. He does not say, “I am the Devil, evil, the Tempter, and I am going to show you how to be evil.” Life and Watergate reveal that he is far more clever and subtle than that. Did not one of the witnesses say in effect, “I found myself involved in the process before I had a chance to reflect on it”?

The Devil disguises himself. He comes to the backdoor. He remains anonymous. He hides his evil behind a front of virtue. He appeals to us through a good loyalty, a fine friendship, and a worthy cause. He shows us a clever short cut to a good end. And, very cleverly, he hits us most effectively not through our weaknesses, but through our strengths. He tempts the wealthy to forget their common humanity, the powerful to be ruthless, and the intellectual to be a snob. He promises what is attractive and hides his face behind the mask of virtue. He is never forthright; he is the father of confusion and of lies. Watergate should teach us never to underestimate the enormous subtlety of evil.

Finally, looking ahead, we can wish the President well as he seeks to recover a confidence he has lost. It does not appear that he will be impeached or that he will resign. He will remain the head of the nation for the rest of his term, and it would benefit us all if his presidency were not, in Stewart Alsop’s word, a “paraplegic” one.

But how will our confidence in his leadership be recovered? Let me close with two comments. First, he says that he will do so by deeds and not words, but I think it should be pointed out that, particularly in his high office, words are deeds. They have power, they can create or destroy, unite or divide; and, therefore, his animosity against the press, his repeated attacks on the press, are unworthy of his high office. If he accepts the glory and the benefits of his position, he ought also, as men have done before him, to accept more philosophically the pain and the misery of the presidency.

Second, since confidence has been weakened by the Watergate affair, it will only be really restored by doing away with the suspicions created by Watergate and which every poll reveals exist in the minds of the people. Real confidence will not be restored by counter-attacks, by pointing to other problems, or by trying to get the people to forget Watergate. If a man’s real authority is in the hearts of the people, how can we escape that conclusion?

That brings us to the tapes, and I can only here reflect on what I think Edmund Burke would say about those tapes. The President seems to be standing absolutely on the principle of the separation of powers. Burke pointed out that it is possible for men to lose all common sense and prudence as they take their stand on “the principle of the thing.” After all, since other principles are involved (no man should be above the laws or be a judge in his own case), no one principle can claim to be absolute.

Compromise, which is essential to all social existence, is necessary.

This, in my opinion, is what Judge Sirica was saying in his judgment. I do not know enough about the law to say that Judge Sirica was right, but I do admire the common sense and prudence of his words. The President has a right to confidentiality, and the country has a right to affirm that no man is above the law. Until the tapes are in some manner released the doubts and suspicions of the people will remain. Since no one principle can be an absolute, the President should be actively seeking a decent compromise.