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A Watergate Legacy: More Public Skepticism, Ambivalence

By Brooks Jackson/CNN

WASHINGTON (June 13) -- The Watergate burglars had rubber gloves on their hands and hundred-dollar bills in their pockets -- campaign money that led from the Watergate to President Richard Nixon's re-election committee, and then to the sordid secret of American politics: Illegal, underground financing of both parties.

A total of 21 corporations, were found guilty of illegal giving to Republicans and Democrats, including American Airlines, Ashland Oil, Braniff Airways, Carnation Company, Goodyear, Gulf, Hertz and Northrop.

The scandal produced reform -- for a while. Only clean money in the election of 1976: nothing over $1,000 in presidential primaries; only public money in the general election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford; and a new Federal Election Commission to police the rules.

But it didn't last.

Says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann, "We were better off for a while, but we've lost that advantage and now we're at a position where the law as interpreted by the courts and by the politicians permits behavior that we found absolutely appalling in the Watergate era."

The Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech protected by the First Amendment. And the election commission issued regulations allowing "soft money" from corporations, labor unions, and big donors.

So last year, more special-interest money than Richard Nixon ever dreamed of -- $124 million in soft money to Democrats, $138 million to Republicans -- flowed into the two major parties. And, this time, it was mostly legal.

"There is a lot of political ingenuity out there, and any rule you have you can find ways to evade it legally -- that's what politicians have done," said Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University.

Disclosure still works, maybe too well. What seemed a scandal then is old news now. So much money. And neither side will change: each blames the other.

Campaign finance reforms were not the only things to go sour. Watergate also produced systematic efforts to root out corruption. But watchdogs became attack dogs.

Hearings paid off for Democrats. They gained 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate in 1974, and one in the White House in 1976.

Investigations paid off for reporters, too. They became heroes, some rich and famous.

Says Wayne, "The press no longer gives public officials the benefit of the doubt. They think it's all talk to protect their own ego and re-election chances, and they assume if not a person is lying, he's not telling the whole truth."

And they assume if a person is not lying, he's not telling the whole truth either. Practically anything triggers massive investigations: A money-losing real-estate deal such as Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater venture; A college course with a political message, such as that of House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Nine million dollars spent to investigate former Agriculture Department Secretary Mike Espy, who may have taken free football tickets.

"We now criminalize what in the old days would have been normal political give-and-take," Said Brookings' Mann. "We have the independent counsel law, we have the public integrity section of the Justice Department, we have ethics committees and procedures, we have a lot invested now in detecting wrong-doing."

Watergate exposed lies, crimes, corruption. The investigation established that no president is above the law. Now many say government is more honest, presidents more accountable. But the public believes government is corrupt, untrustworthy and ruled by money and personal ambition. Last November, only 49 percent even bothered to vote.

So after 25 years we're still feeling the effects. More money. Less trust. Fewer voters.

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