Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reunited in print last weekend for the first time in 36 years to write an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the scandal that eventually destroyed the presidency of Richard Nixon and landed some 40 of his aides and henchmen in jail.
It also made both Woodward and Bernstein celebrities, millionaires and, later, bitter enemies. But they got back together to restate their belief that Watergate was the worst political scandal ever and that Nixon's presidency was dangerous, corrupt and a cancer on the national scene that had to be removed.
They base this on the Watergate break-in itself, when several ex-CIA employees were caught burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic Party, Nixon's hatred of the news media; his anti-Semitic comments and his zeal to destroy his enemies.
Now that four decades have passed, historians are reassessing the Watergate scandal and the president who it ruined. The truth about Watergate and Nixon the president is quite a bit more complicated than the open-and-shut case perpetuated by Woodward and Bernstein.
First of all, Watergate is not an isolated case of below-the-belt politics. Nixon's two predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both used illegal wiretapping and surveillance of perceived political enemies. Ronald Reagan would later profit from a stolen debate briefing book to undermine his opponent, President Jimmy Carter.
Even if one were to stipulate Woodward and Bernstein's theories as 100 percent accurate, how does Nixon's morality compare with George W. Bush's, who stole at least one election and lied the U.S. into a decade-long war. How does Nixon's political sabotage compare with the establishment of secret CIA torture prisons, which Bush also did?
For that matter, what about Kennedy authorizing wiretaps against Martin Luther King and assassination plots against Fidel Castro? Or Reagan's approval of trading arms to the Iranians in exchange for the release of hostages?
In his recently published book The Age of Nixon, Carl Freedman, an English professor at Louisiana State University, examines Nixon from a Marxist viewpoint and reaches the conclusion that, yes, Nixon could be nasty.
For example, Nixon deliberately ran a campaign designed to appeal to racist tendencies, helping usher in 50 years of a Republican party comprised of rich people and poor Southern bigots. He also extended the Vietnam War. And, yes, despite relying on Jewish people in key advisory positions, he made many anti-Semitic remarks in private.
Still, according to Freedman, Nixon was the most liberal of all modern presidents with the exception of FDR, Johnson and possibly Barack Obama.
As evidence, Freedman noted that federal spending on domestic social programs under Nixon exceeded military spending for the first time, jumping from 28 percent of the budget under Johnson to 40 percent. Other justifications of his position include Nixon's signing of the Clean Air Act of 1970, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and support of billions allocated toward the war on cancer.
Despite his quasi-racist posturing during his campaign, Nixon's administration oversaw substantial improvements in school desegregation. When he took office, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics, 68 percent of black children in the South were attending all-black schools. By 1974 that number was 8 percent.
He mandated that certain percentages of government contracts go to minority-owned businesses. Such actions today would have Nixon impeached, this time by Republicans.
Nixon never claimed credit for addressing racial issues; to do so would have alienated his white Southern base. Liberals, consumed with hatred for the man, would have given him no credit for those things either.
History will forever revere Nixon for his trip to China and opening the door of diplomatic relations with a country that had been for decades considered an enemy of America. In today's environment, only a trip by a President Romney to Iran or to Cuba to hug Fidel Castro would be as surprising.
Nixon was a complicated man and possibly even an unpleasant person. He maybe even committed felonies while in office. But so did presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and G.W. Bush. His crimes outweighed Bill Clinton's, who was impeached for his.
Woodward and Bernstein are like Simon and Garfunkel, who get back together to feed at the cash trough based on their former glory. They would be well advised to remember Clinton's eulogy after Nixon died in 1994:
"May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close. May we heed his call to maintain the will and the wisdom to build on America's greatest gift, its freedom, and to lead a world full of difficulty to the just and lasting peace he dreamed of."