02/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Bush and the Unlearned Lesson of Watergate

As President Obama considers whether to expose and/or prosecute illegal, unethical or unconstitutional actions by the Bush Administration, it is understandable that he will follow his own inaugural admonition that he (we) will be judged by what we build, not what we tear down, and may decide against pursuing those crimes or misprisons of office.

Understandable, but wrong.

Wrong because truth is the only basis for lasting reconciliation. Wrong because it conveys a lack of confidence in the American people to hear the truth and respond like adults; why were we adult enough to hear frank words about race and Reverend Wright, but incompetent to find truth healing? Wrong because some of the actions, such as Cheney's waterboarding admission, are hiding in plain sight; hence, if ignored, they are a constant reminder to the American people that, like the banks, some people are "too big to fail".

And, wrong because it ignores the unlearned lesson of Watergate, our other national scandal that, if unchecked, would have robbed the American people of its democracy, its values, and its way of life. Just as those Watergate burglars--spying on the opposition--stabbed democracy in its heart, the Bush Administration's transgressions stole democracy's soul.

The unlearned lesson of Watergate is that several of its leaders had been caught redhanded in another Nixon anti-democracy scheme years earlier, but, because it appeared at the time that Nixon's political career was over ("you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference"), the case against them was dropped.

What the Nixon team had done then, in California, was to mail literature fraudulently stated to have come from Democrats. Relatively innocuous compared to later schemes, but people like HR Haldemann, Nixon's Karl Rove, and possibly Nixon himself would, according to the judge, have been convicted. By dropping the case, these men and their colleagues were not only allowed to seek public office, but were encouraged to engage in fraudulent behavior to further their own cause. They too were "too big to fail".

A clear signal of how sensitive they were to their prior fraud was the angry retort of their lawyer when Senator Joseph Montoya (D-NM) raised it as part of the Watergate Senate hearings. Apparently, the Senate Committee had had to agree in advance not to raise it and Montoya did not get the word.

That is, there was every chance to stop Nixon, Haldemann, Ehrlichmann and others years before they gave us Watergate. That is the unlearned lesson of Watergate.

The Bush people came very close, very close indeed, to changing forever the nature of our democratic system, freezing out forever the large majority of the American people, substituting convenient beliefs for hard truths. Their goal was to have their interests that represent a minority of the people achieve permanent political power. Their tactics included co-opting lawyers (thereby providing them an imprimatur of legitimacy), paying columnists to write favorable articles, creating a cult of personality by requiring George W's name to appear favorably 3-times on every page of Administration officials' speeches, declaring a war without end that then justified nearly limitless executive authority, filling key positions with incompetents who could be manipulated, rewriting scientific conclusions that were at odds with their needs, and, telling the people they are under attack and labeling the opposition as either weak or unpatriotic or both.

Omit the specific names, and ask yourself in what kind of country are those tactics employed, and for what end?

History may very well show that only Bush's incompetence on Katrina and the heavy toll of the Iraq War, echoed through the newly-minted netroots, prevented their success. It was only a crusty old conservative District Court Judge's personal pique over the Watergate burglars' unwillingness to level with him that led him to impose the maximum penalties on the burglars to get them to talk and break the Watergate story wide open.

Those are slim threads and coincidences to rely upon to preserve the Republic. Why not, for our children, lance the Bush boil now? Whether it is exposure alone, exposure and prosecution, or prosecution only, I leave to the Administration and Congress to determine.

We can take the medicine, and will emerge healthier for it.