John Marini challenges conventional wisdom about the Watergate scandal in the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis.

The political and intellectual elites of both parties came quickly to agree that executive abuse of power under Nixon posed a threat to democracy, and that Nixon’s removal was required to meet that threat. Few noted the adverse effect on democratic or popular accountability: removing the elected chief executive further empowered the unelected executive bureaucracy, and further relegated Congress—which had created that bureaucracy—to serving as an executive oversight body rather than a legislative body. …

… The popular understanding of the Watergate scandal—that it was somehow rooted in Nixon’s flawed personal character, and that it was essentially a legal matter—remains unshaken after more than 40 years. But I was not convinced then, nor am I convinced today, that Watergate can be properly understood in either personal or legal terms. By promising to use his executive power to bring the executive bureaucracy under his control, Nixon posed a danger to the political establishment after his landslide re-election. In response, the establishment struck back.

It wasn’t until many years after Watergate that we learned the identity of the source of the leaks that led to Nixon’s removal. Deep Throat, the source for the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post, turned out to be Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official who had access to all of the classified information pertaining to the investigation. Felt leaked that information selectively over the course of a year or more, helping to shape public opinion in ways the prosecution could not. Although Woodward and Bernstein were lauded as investigative reporters, they merely served as a conduit by which the bureaucracy undermined the authority of the elected chief executive.