On 17 June 1972, a series of burglaries at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC were discovered by a security guard. On 8 August 1974 US President Richard Nixon resigned, having been informed that if he did not do so he would be placed into a process that would almost certainly lead to criminal charges.
The Watergate scandal
The scandal would never have come to light but for the dogged investigations of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose long and twisting path to the truth was immortalised in the film All the President’s Men, now preserved in the US National Film Registry.
It has recently been alleged that Nixon also conspired with South Vietnam to sabotage peace negotiations in order to keep the Vietnam War going over the 1968 presidential elections, thereby damaging the popularity of the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson. The apparent failure to end an unpopular war attracted more voters to a change of regime – the one led by Nixon, the Republican challenger.
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Nixon?
Fast forward to the UK in 2022, and there are many comparisons between the situation in which Nixon found himself, and the morass into which Johnson is sinking.
Johnson came to power on an electoral promise of an ‘oven ready brexit’ deal that is currently unravelling. The Leave campaign he headed is also currently under suspicion of having achieved referendum success through the interference of a foreign power.
This is just one of a series of scandals that have run throughout his premiership. Perhaps the most sensational has been his flouting of lockdown laws that resulted in the receipt of a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police.
True to Nixonian form, thus far the only people to have been heavily penalised for the so-called ‘partygate’ affair have been junior staff, with rumors that events that would have damaged Johnson more heavily were not investigated by either senior civil servant Sue Grey or by the Metropolitan Police.
Similarities and differences
Johnson faces an even greater challenge this autumn, when the parliamentary privileges committee begins an investigation on whether he lied to parliament during the period the partygate scandal was emerging, which will require him to give testimony under oath. But will this be his Waterloo, as impending impeachment became for Nixon?
It’s clear that that Nixon and Johnson, born half a century apart, share a common predilection for duplicity and scandal along with a talent of passing the blame for their behaviour onto those they engage in more junior roles.
There is even a modern Bernstein/Woodward figure doggedly investigating Johnson and his associates, rolled into one dynamic investigative reporter: Carol Cadwalladr, who has recently successfully defended a libel action in the High Court.
But there are significant differences between Nixon and Johnson: the closer relationship between 21st-century media and political worlds, and the 21st-century cult of celebrity upon which Johnson floats.
The tangle of connections between politics and mass media
The current cabinet enjoy very close relationships with mass media bosses, which did not exist to the same extent in the 20th century. Some, like Michael Gove and Johnson, directly crossed the divide from being employed by the Murdoch press to entering the House of Commons. Johnson worked for the Times in the late 1980s, while Gove worked as leader writer for the Times for a decade straddling the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
It is clear that current government ministers enjoy close relationships with Rupert Murdoch which extend across a number of mass media platforms, and that they are making efforts to further cement these. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s embittered ex-spin doctor, has claimed that the government pays news outlets to present it, Johnson in particular, in a positive light.
Whatever the truth of current claims and counterclaims, it’s clear that Johnson and some of his associates have a much faster inside track to major media figures than Nixon was ever able to contrive.
And perhaps this goes some way to explaining how Cadwalladr was more vulnerable to challenge and ‘othering’ than Woodward and Bernstein were in the pre-Murdoch, less intermeshed political and media worlds of the early 1970s.
The cult of celebrity
Harry Shearer, who performed the role of Richard Nixon in a 2014 film and who has recently recorded a series of comedy songs about ex-president Donald Trump, makes an interesting comparison between the two presidents from the basis of his intensive study of the Watergate tapes:
“Nixon in private is like Trump in public. The only difference is that Nixon believed that he had to maintain this facade of decorum and propriety and all that. Trump doesn’t give a fuck about that stuff.”
This difference could be equally well applied to the difference between Nixon and Johnson. But why is this the case?
Since the advent of the Big Brother concept in the early 2000s, the public on both sides of the Atlantic have been inundated with a flood of cheap ‘reality’ media in which non-entertainers compete for the approval of viewers, with many attempting to achieve an enduring public persona.
Trump got onto this bandwagon early, as the host of the business reality competition The Apprentice between 2004 and 2014, which cemented him in the US public’s imagination as a ‘character’.
Johnson took an alternative but equally successful route via his frequent late 1990s/early 2000s appearances on the current affairs comedy panel show Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY), which he began as a journalist and failed Conservative Party candidate. Alex Marshall comments:
“For those willing to be laughed at, and to laugh at themselves, the show has become a way to endear themselves to the public in a country where self-deprecation is an art form.”
Marshall references the episode when Johnson was asked about a situation in which he was recorded plotting with a friend to have an over-intrusive journalist beaten up. Johnson replies he was “not ashamed of it” and when asked what ‘it’ referred to, he responds “Whatever there is not to be ashamed of”. This clearly delights the audience, providing Johnson with a springboard to fame and popularity that Nixon could not have imagined in his wildest dreams
HIGNFY regular Ian Hislop recently commented, “There is a sense of guilt that part of Boris’ success has been built on his performances”.
Politics or entertainment?
Reality media offers politicians opportunities to display attributes that might be comically amusing to some, but which are not desirable in those whom we engage to do the serious and responsible job of running the country.
There is evidence that less politically engaged members of the public may sometimes confuse the attributes they find entertaining in reality TV competitors, with attributes that create principled public servants.
Marshall reports speaking to a HIGNFY audience member who commented “people voted for Johnson because they thought he’s got character”, a finding also made by Newsnight reporter Lewis Goodall in a focus group he held at the beginning of this year.
Nixon, Trump and Johnson all demonstrate, in their own ways, how dangerous and disruptive duplicitous characters can exist within the top echelons of politics. Unfortunately, it seems that our sophisticated globally networked technology is making us increasingly vulnerable to such individuals.
Western society has sleepwalked into this situation. We must now make conscious efforts to extract ourselves.