Forty years ago, America was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, which would end in August 1974 with President Richard Nixon’s resignation. A number of conservatives would like us to believe history is repeating itself in the Benghazi story (which covers the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, and its aftermath). Charles Krauthammer called a recently released memo about the administration’s response to Benghazi “the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes.” “Yes or no, “ Sean Hannity asked his “All-American Panel” about Benghazi a few days later, “is this worse than Watergate?” (“Four dead Americans,” he intoned when his guests hesitated.)
But Benghazi is no Watergate. Far from it: There was no crime to cover up, and to the extent it existed, the Benghazi “cover-up” consisted of little more than some Sunday show talking points. Compared to Watergate, which involved burglary, bribes, wiretaps and perjury, the Benghazi case looks increasingly, as Michael Hirsh put it in Politico Magazine, like a “pseudo-scandal.”
Conservatives use the Watergate comparison in part because it is the ur-scandal of American politics. (There’s a reason journalists affix –gate to every major political misdeed.) Yet there’s more to it than that. Many on the right brandish the worse-than-Watergate charge because they both underrate Nixon’s crimes and overrate President Obama’s.
“Watergate,” Carl Bernstein helpfully reminded everyone on Sunday, “was a massive criminal conspiracy led by a criminal president of the United States for almost the whole of his administration.” Indeed, over the course of his five and a half years in office, Nixon built a shadow government so he could conduct both the Vietnam War and his re-election campaign with no constraints.
Not all conservatives see it that way, however. When they describe Watergate, the most common phrase isn’t “criminal conspiracy” but “ third-rate burglary,” the description Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used in 1972 when news of the break-in was first made public. (The second-most common phrase is “criminalization of politics,” based on the notion that Nixon didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for a high-ranking politician, yet was targeted by a liberal press intent on bringing down a Republican president.)
While Watergate shrinks in the conservative imagination, Benghazi looms large. It became clear relatively early on that “administration official spins story on Sunday talk shows” was not the most startling of accusations (though Republicans got their pound of flesh when Obama withdrew Susan Rice’s nomination for secretary of state). So the Benghazi conspiracists made a leap in logic, connecting the morning show spin (which the administration was actively involved in) to the deaths at the embassy (which was a tragedy, not a conspiracy). The leap is apparent in interjections like Hannity’s: “Four dead Americans!” Or as Sen. John McCain said after someone asked him if Benghazi was as bad as Watergate, “Well, nobody died in Watergate.”
Yet as many commentators have noted, if the government shares some responsibility for security failures in Benghazi, that is a story of competence, not criminality. Nor is it a story limited to the Obama administration. Attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities are hardly a new phenomenon – 13 occurred during George W. Bush’s presidency. There’s room for debate about whether these attacks are a result of incompetence, a consequence of the war on terror, or a sign that the world is a dangerous place. But they hardly rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
On Fox News Sunday, George Will pushed back against Krauthammer’s claim about the Benghazi memo, calling it “rather less than the Watergate tapes.” He went on to pose a number of questions he found far more important: U.S. involvement in the Libyan civil war, security levels at the embassy and the military response to the attacks. These are policy issues worth exploring. They are not, however, crimes worth prosecuting, which is why it’s time to retire the Watergate comparison.