Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous Watergate break-in. On the night of May 28, 1972 a team of burglars from President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign entered Democratic National Committee headquarters on the sixth floor of the Watergate office building, rifled through files and desk drawers, and bugged telephones. One of the bugs didn't work. So the burglars returned on June 17 to replace it. That was the night they were caught.
The investigations that followed unearthed a series of scandalous acts that sent Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, his White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and three dozen other aides and associates to jail. Nixon himself resigned. The dark deeds of other presidents - assassination plots, electronic surveillance and dealings with organized crime - were unearthed by congressional investigations, shaking faith in government.
It was a sad, disillusioning moment, which Americans would like to forget. But it's important to remember our history now, at a time when the post-Watergate reforms, which were designed to put an end to such corruption, are being eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.
Today you can give as much money as you want to help a president, a senator or a member of the House of Representatives get elected - and you can do it in secret, and the public will never know. The Watergate scandals left us unassailable evidence of just what that kind of behavior leads to - of the kind of corruption that occurs when campaign finance laws are lax, or unenforced, or riddled by loopholes.
The International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, for example, discovered in the Nixon years that a timely $400,000 contribution to the Republican Party helped make an anti-trust problem go away.
"Does ITT have money?" Haldeman asked.
"Oh God yes," said the president. "That's part of this ball game."
Dairy interests kicked in $2 million in secret donations, in return for higher federal milk subsidies.
"Better get a glass of milk. Drink it while it's cheap," aide John Ehrlichman told Nixon.
Herb Kalmbach, the president's personal lawyer, supervised the collection of $20 million in 60 days in the spring of 1972, including $2 million in cash. Multi-millionaires like W. Clement Stone, Richard Mellon Scaife, Arthur Watson, Walter Annenberg, Robert Vesco, Armand Hammer, Dwayne Andreas, George Steinbrenner and Ross Perot were among the secret donors.
The bundles of $100 bills piled up, until the Nixon campaign had a million dollars in cash in its safe. The money that financed the Watergate break-in came from secret donations.