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American Prospects

Of Cover-Ups and Crimes

May 14, 2013

Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts.

And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason for the Watergate cover-up was that specific crimes had been committed, crimes which could have (had they been confessed to in June 1972) sent much of the senior White House staff, much of the campaign organization, and perhaps the President of the United States straight to prison." I'd add that in the case of Watergate, the cover-up actually consisted of new crimes, added on to the original crimes.

This is an important distinction to make. As the Watergate scandal was proceeding, Nixon and his top advisors didn't just say, "Let's send the press secretary out to say this is all no big deal." They committed crimes in their effort to contain the scandal. They paid hush money. They destroyed records. They committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice. And just as they should have, for those crimes, some of Nixon's top advisors went to prison.

Everybody in politics tries to avoid looking bad, and everybody attempts to shape the news to their liking. Did the Obama administration do that with regard to the Benghazi story? Sure, just like every administration does every day, not to mention every member of Congress. They portray themselves as noble and courageous, and their opponents as craven and cynical. They encourage reporters to talk about issues that make them look better, and ignore topics that make them look worse. But when you call those efforts a "cover-up," you're implying something much more serious. There was a cover-up in Watergate, and people went to jail for it. There was a cover-up in Iran-Contra?Oliver North, currently appearing on Fox News to express outrage at the Obama administration, perjured himself before Congress and shredded incriminating White House documents to hide the Reagan administration's illegal and morally abhorrent scheme. That's a cover-up. Editing talking points? Not even close.

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