Lessons from Watergate


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  • Monday, 22 Jun 2015

SORRY folks, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Did you miss me? Aww, thanks. Here are my excuses.

I just celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary and my missus had declared a mega celebration overseas set to end on June 17, which also happens to be her birthday.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the secret to a blissful marriage, it’s this: Never lie to each other. No, I’m not talking about the “Do I look good in this dress?” kind of lie that a man needs to tell his wife every now and then.

I am referring to the deliberate intent to cheat the other person through deception or falsehood.

The act of deliberate deception is what people call betrayal – the No. 1 killer of relationships. And it doesn’t happen only in marriages. It also occurs between employers and their employees. Or between a government and its people!

So, while June 17, 1972 is a pleasant date for me, it isn’t for many Americans.

Because that was also the day Americans were fed with an unprecedented number of untruths by the one person they trusted the most – the President himself.

Yes, on the day my wife was born, a bunch of bumbling burglars were caught trying to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office in Washington.

That initial appearance of a “harmless” wrongdoing quickly turned into a full scandal when President Richard Nixon’s administration was found to have been involved, leading to a constitutional crisis that led to his eventual resignation.

The array of wrongdoing included spying, money-laundering, fund-slushing and, worst of all, using government agencies to harass those who sought answers.

The Watergate saga was so scandalous, the suffix-gate is still used to describe political scandals in other countries with similar developments until today.

So yes, my rant this week is to remind companies, corporations and political parties to come clean if wrongdoing has been committed.

Whether it’s a national airline, power company, financial institution or public fund, it would be wise to examine the parallels.

The first would be self-incrimination! Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal was popularly suspected the day he claimed his administration was absolved of blame.

Which brought Americans to one important question: If Nixon was not involved, why the need to disclaim himself of wrongdoing?

The second is the suspicious money trail. Back then, Nixon’s denial was quickly dismissed after one of his own men was revealed as one of the crooks who broke into the complex in the first place.

The third would be the disastrous strategy of undermining the role of the media whenever it asks questions. Making dim-witted and vague statements whenever questions are asked is unlikely to convince anyone anymore.

It’s therefore pointless to paint media organisations as hostile, especially social media. Since those in power can no longer control information, they obviously can’t control opinion as well.

When Watergate blew wide open, Nixon’s attempt to silence whistle-blowers only implicated him further. This was evident in the manner he chose to discredit opponents, only to strengthen popular dissatisfaction towards his own administration.

The lesson from the Watergate scandal is this: When a lie is uncovered, no amount of political posturing can save it. When public trust is betrayed, there will be a permanent prejudice of opinion.

This is what we call responsibility. Americans knew it wasn’t Richard Nixon who burgled the DNC office and wire-tapped their phones. But it didn’t matter because in the court of public opinion, the man at the top was responsible.

So, no amount of reassurances of “thorough investigations” can pacify people. In fact, the more Nixon insisted on stubbornly holding on, the stronger was the people’s resolve to make him accountable.

So again, leaders (whether company CEOs or political party leaders) must assume full responsibility whenever the public or private entities they are entrusted with continuously report losses. This is the only way to instil confidence in their leadership once again.

I leave you with a quote from Nixon’s Vice-President Gerald Ford (who eventually pardoned him): “While it may be easy to delete characterisation from the printed page, we cannot delete it from people’s minds with a simple wave of the hand.”

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