Watergate and scandal politics: the rise and fall of the special prosecutor
Watergate and Scandal Politics: the Rise and Fall of the Special Prosecutor This chapter will examine the emergence of the Special Prosecutor in American politics during the Watergate crisis and how as a result the office became an integral part of the US political landscape. Firstly, the piece will scrutinise how the Cox-Jaworski investigation set the scene for the office being held in such high esteem, and how the knee-jerk response to the Nixon crisis brought about a piece of legislation that many claimed was ill conceived and politically dangerous. However true this was, the statute was used continuously through the late twentieth century and in almost every instance was considered to be highly contentious. The Watergate investigation set a false gold-standard for later investigations, as such a clear-cut instance of good versus evil was unlikely to be repeated in the highly volatile world of US politics. President Nixon had ensured hero status for the Watergate Special Prosecutor by continuously stonewalling when asked for information during the investigation. In addition, Nixon’s decision to fire Archibald Cox when the investigative pressure became more than he could bear, confirmed what many had previously feared – that the president considered himself to be above the law. Dirty tricks were nothing new in US politics but this situation was unprecedented. The resulting maelstrom demonstrated the extent of public anger but Nixon’s decision was a tactical as well as a PR blunder. Cox’s replacement was in many ways a tougher adversary and again the Special Prosecutor’s reputation soared as Nixon’s plummeted. This was a classic incidence of hard cases making bad law. The Independent Counsel Statute brought with it a desire to ensure that every transgression, however minor, was hit with this legislative anvil. Response to executive misdemeanour required a certain amount of fluidity depending on the severity of the case. In the post Watergate years, initial use of the Statute was clumsy. In later years the legislation came into its own, specifically in the case of the Iran Contra Affair. Such a serious matter warranted the full weight of the statute. However, even then the flaws were apparent. With no financial or time constraints, and focusing on an individual, rather than a specific crime, an investigation could run and run. Inevitably, whichever party was being investigated would shout accusations of partisan witch-hunting at the independent counsel. Such allegations were even made when the independent counsel was from the same party as the accused, as in the case of Iran Contra. However, when the individuals involved were from opposite sides of the political fence, as in the case of Bill Clinton and Ken Starr, the gloves came off. In conclusion, the chapter will assess the pitfalls associated with efforts to legislate ethics. Fighting the last war invariably results in unintended consequence. However, as the last war in this instance was Watergate, there could hardly have been a more significant catalyst for the independent counsel statute. The office went on to make and break the reputations of many – but none so clearly as those involved in the Watergate crisis.
This chapter is part of an edited volume of work on the impact of Watergate on US Politics. The Special Prosecutor section focuses specifically on the impact of the reactive legislation that came as a result of Watergate and what this meant for the post-imperial presidents.
Citation : Harrington, C. (2012) Watergate and scandal politics: the rise and fall of the special prosecutor. In: Genovese, M.A. and Morgan, I.W. (eds) Watergate Remembered: The Legacy for American Politics, London: Palgrave, pp. 69-86
ISBN : 978-0230116504