Deep Throat: What was most interesting about the Watergate years in the U.S.? Not, I’d argue, the saga of two young reporters taking down a president with the help of a secret source. After all, little changed; subsequent presidents, till now, often out-Nixoned Nixon.

But there was another narrative forming in those years: about a profound challenge to authority and the way things were done in the U.S., mounted largely from the grassroots. The war in Vietnam was opposed not mainly by politicians or opinion leaders but by street protest. The anarchic upswell was threatening enough to be called by those in power a “crisis of democracy.” It raised issues of legitimacy across the board: in business, media, academia, government.

I recall new leftists going on Dick Cavett’s late night talk show, which was in the Johnny Carson league, and saying, You’re a bright young guy, Cavett, why are you wasting your time on a TV gig? Imagine anything like that today. For the beleaguered “system,” or “establishment,” it did oodles of good to convey the impression that two journalists deep inside it had heroically attacked the forces of evil in power, and won, without needing to challenge anything basic in the system. Their story helped obscure the more popular and subversive achievements of the era, along with the breakdown of respect for the big institutions.

I’m not saying the promotion of the Watergate tale was a conscious plot to restore the prestige of those institutions, but that was among its effects.

The Grewal tapes: There’s been lots of moral tut-tutting this week over “negotiations” between Gurmant Grewal and the Liberals. The Toronto Star‘s Jim Travers kept muttering it was “unseemly.” That hardly appears worth going to the brink for. I’d say it all proves that a certain kind of moral posturing doesn’t mesh well with politics.

There is a law that says you can’t buy the vote of an MP. It’s directed mainly at the power of the rich to purchase parliamentarians. By extension, it applies to governments. That’s fair enough. Our whole political process is awash in the buying power of the rich, via their political donations, the media they own, the think-tanks they use to frame debates. Nobody’s doing much to rein in that overarching power, but at least you can try to prevent them from hoovering up individual votes. That’s what the law does. There’s no “spirit” about it. You either break it or you don’t. It’s a law.

In the tapes, you can hear the Liberals trying not to break it. They want Gurmant Grewal to help them out so they can stay in power and pass their program. Maybe if he does, they’ll just brush his ambitions off, as they have with others in the past. That would be cold-hearted and I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s how the system works, even more so in a minority pressure cooker. Deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay says you can hear them trying to make an offer. I’d say you can hear them trying not to make an offer. If they had, he’d have needed to accept it, or look silly for changing his mind. It’s all a vacuous but intriguing show of moral gamesmanship.

It rings false because politics is a bad place for staged displays of private morality. Politics works best when it’s about the public interest. Motives don’t matter much, nor does personal merit or worth. Take the current Parliament. There are some clear public issues at stake. Will we have national child care and relief for cities, especially in mass transit? Don’t tell me those issues don’t have a moral dimension. They do, but they don’t fit well into the kind of sham moral drama occurring on and around the tapes.

Has anyone ended up looking good these past weeks? Chuck Cadman, I’d say, who belongs to no party and projects a sense of not being personally ambitious or for sale. In fact, he looks to me less like an ex-Reform Party member than an ex-hippie, still imbued with some of that generation’s disdain for the establishment and its efforts to make decent souls “sell out.” No thanks, he seemed to say when he voted that fateful day, but have another toke. Notch one small victory for the 1960s, a bit like Watergate.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.