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The Watergate scandal is of profound historical, political, and legal importance. Today Watergate proliferates U.S cable news, newspaper editorials, court documents, television, and political language. This paper analyses the historical legacy of Watergate and its historic continuity with the objective of discovering how this legacy operates and the degree to which it has remained fixed or has been redefined in the 21st century.

Firstly, the paper examines Iwan Morgan and Michael A. Genovese’s 2012 retrospective essays on Watergate demonstrating its legacy as a warning of the imperial
presidency in the context of the War on Terror and the Bush administration. Then Watergate’s legacy relating to President Trump specifically will be examined through legal documents such as the Mueller Report and the January 6 Committee’s depositions, all demonstrating how Watergate played a pivotal role in important political events. This includes the decision by Trump not to fire Robert Mueller and the decision by Cassidy Hutchinson to testify to the January 6 Committee. Through politicians’ and journalists’ statements it will be shown how Watergate’s legacy was both mobilised by liberals against Trump, but also how Watergate’s ambiguous legacy itself prompted an intra-liberal discussion as to whether Nixon’s resignation really represented the ‘system working.’ 

Whereas Watergate literature previously adopted the All the President’s Men narrative with the press as the heroes of Watergate, increasingly liberals both in and outside academia shifted the supply of heroism onto Republicans, both in Congress, the FBI, and wider bureaucracy. This prompted concern that modern political polarisation therefore nullified Watergate’s modern significance. Meanwhile Trump supporters adopted previous revisionist outlooks, viewing Watergate as a bureaucratic ‘Deep State’ coup against Nixon. Comparing this language to Watergate-era literature (1973- 1991) it will be shown how the same overarching question of presidential power dominates Watergate discussion with historical constancy. What are, and what should be the contours of American presidential power? While these answers may change based on political context, Watergate remains the overarching narrative story for how political elites think about presidential power, thus generating competing interpretations of Watergate.

Patrick O’Dare is a PGR student and teaching assistant at Queen Mary University of London, where he is doing a PhD in history focusing on the Watergate scandal and its implications for the U.S political and system in the context of presidential power. His MA was in History and Politics: United States Studies and his BA in History and Politics. Patrick’s work focuses on the interplay between history and politics, what historical events can teach us about wider political systems, as well as the application of political science approaches to historical political events. 

All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.