Political scientists have calculated that between 1972 and 2008, 87 presidential scandals occurred, or one every five months: Benghazi, the targeting of Tea Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service, yellow cake in Niger, torture in Abu Ghraib, the outing of Valerie Plame, Swift-boating, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Whitewater, Willie Horton, Iran-Contra, Billy Carter and Bert Lance, the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre, phony claims of shelling in the Gulf of Tonkin, wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bay of Pigs, the trumped-up Soviet missile gap, vote-stuffing in Chicago, and packing the Supreme Court, to name a few. And yet, Watergate has overshadowed this waste-basketful of transgressions. No other scandal has matched Nixon’s violations of the presidential oath, and no other president has been forced to resign. So when a White House scandal hits, the comparisons are inevitably to Nixon.
The word “Watergate” has transformed through what linguists call “semantic broadening”: the process by which a word takes on additional meanings, most often toward the more generic or to an entity with an analogous trait. For example, the word “mouse,” a specific type of rodent, can also to refer to rodents more generically, to a timid person, to the handheld device for remotely controlling a computer’s cursor, and now to the definitely un-rodent-like trackpad on a laptop. “Watergate” began as the name of a popular office and residential complex in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., drawing its name from the large water gate between the nearby Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canals. Then, in 1972, “Watergate” became a stand-in for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the office complex; the scene of the crime became the name of the crime. Within a year, “Watergate” had become shorthand for the cover-up of that burglary, then broadened to include Nixon’s entire portfolio of crimes and dirty-trickery, then to reference any major political scandal, then to any scandal—imagined or otherwise. Thus, we’ve had Envelopegate, Golden Shower Gate, Emailgate, Pizzagate, Gamergate, Nannygate, Deflategate, Spygate, Bridgegate in New Jersey, Nipplegate, Rathergate, Bibigate, and three different Troopergates, to name a few.
The late William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist, and perhaps the chief of -gatekeeping, observed in 1979 how frequently “the ‘gate’ of ‘Watergate’ is becoming the standard label for any new political shenanigans,” adding that “the excessive use of this suffix is becoming a linguistic gategate.” This semantic broadening enshrined “Watergate” as the standard for deviousness while, oftentimes, diminishing Nixon’s misdeeds through association to far less weighty, even silly affairs. Safire himself was guilty of this: He frequently referred to Whitewater, President Bill Clinton’s real-estate scandal, as “Whitewatergate,” implicitly (as well as explicitly) comparing Clinton’s controversy to Nixon’s transgressions—a presumptive prediction that Whitewater would prove to be Clinton’s demise. For to affix -gate to such a scandal is to project, not always accurately, the ultimate Nixon-like ruination—and public humiliation. And as Safire surmised after more than a decade of judging the -gate-worthy: “[A] scandal without an agreed-upon label lacks the identity that turns a story into history.”
Another key characteristic of a true Watergate tale is a pivotal, persistent and heroic press. The oft-commemorated protagonists of the Watergate saga are not the Republican congressmen who broke party lines to threaten impeachment, not the three congressional investigatory committees, not the countless staffers who toiled for those committees or the FBI agents whom Nixon was so intent to stop. They’re not Cox, nor the two men—acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus—who resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor on Nixon’s behalf. They’re not Cox’s replacement, Leon Jaworski, and his team of lawyers who carried out the prosecution, not U.S. District Judge John Sirica and his twelve grand jury members who voted unanimously to force Nixon to hand over nine of his secret tape recordings, not the countless “leakers” (aside from Deep Throat) who filled newspaper columns with insider information, and not Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard who originally found the duct tape left by the burglars on the door of the Democrats’ office. The felling of a conspiracy on the scale of a Watergate does, after all, take a village. And yet, in the popular memory of Watergate—principally in All the President’s Men—Woodward and Bernstein are remembered as the heroic figures, the rag-tag duo of Davids who felled the Goliathian Nixon administration.
To traffic in the language of Watergate is to invest implicitly one’s hopes in the free press as the lead detective and prosecutor. And under Trump, -gating and the language of the Nixon era has become a rallying cry for robust reportage. Consider the hallelujahs to the first amendment at last month’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where Woodward and Bernstein—seated on opposite flanks of the podium, as their mutual distaste seems never to abate—were the stars of the night. As a member of the Nixon generation, Bernstein gave a list of instructions for the next generation of journalists, the Trump generation, on how to (un)cover the next Watergate. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said in his speech, clearly identifying where he believed the bones were buried and by whom. “And,” he added, “when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.” In turn, Woodward extolled the lesson that a reporter must “not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Theirs was a call-to-arms to the media, providing a path for writing a new Watergate. It was a night with one looming lesson. To fell another president, to earn an entry in the pantheon of presidential scandal, to get another -gate, the press would have to hold the shining light. Bernstein finished with advice he learned all those years ago at the Washington Post, not on how to do top-notch reporting, but, specifically, on how to cover a conspiracy, the next Watergate: “Yes, follow the money but follow, also, the lies.”