Lessons to Be Learned From Watergate

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Lessons to Be Learned From Watergate

Politics Become Corrupt When a Leader Surrounds Himself Only With Loyal Supporters

Approximately 5,000 to 6,000 high-level federal government officials are reportedly replaced each time a new administration is inaugurated in the United States. According to Professor Ham Song-deuk of the political science department at Korea University, it took 6 years for President Clinton to complete all his personnel appointments after he took office in 1993. Since personnel appointments usually take so much time, a U.S. president who serves one four-year term could end his presidency without managing to replace all the senior government officials. This system of replacing government officials after taking power has been a U.S. tradition since Andrew Jackson institutionalized the spoils system, awarding his loyal supporters with official positions, when he was elected the seventh president of the United States in 1829.

Even so, there are almost no controversies about a newly inaugurated president making regionally biased personnel appointments in the United States. John F. Kennedy, who took over the White House in 1961, placed Harvard graduates in a number of key positions and named his brother Robert to his cabinet as attorney general, but there were no controversies because no one could fault their qualifications. Richard Nixon, who took office in 1969, was the first U.S. president to exploit this system by filling the key White House and federal positions with unqualified Californian cronies, such as chief of staff Bob Haldeman, assistant for domestic affairs John Ehrlichman, spokesman Ron Ziegler and appointments secretary Dwight Chapin. The Georgians who followed Jimmy Carter into the White House in 1977 also formed a tight clique, with Hamilton Jordan, Carter''s chief of staff, as the leader, but they did not compare with Mr. Nixon''s "California Mafia."

The California Mafia was an American-version of loyal supporters who were blindly faithful to and shied away from nothing for their boss. The Watergate scandal that forced Mr. Nixon to resign the presidency was a result of their blind and almost religious loyalty to Mr. Nixon. The saga of the most notorious political scandal in American history began in 1972, when the police arrested five intruders breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The men were there to adjust bugging equipment that they had installed earlier.

Chief of Staff Haldeman, together with his subordinates, not only bugged the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but also dug up dirt on Edward Kennedy, who was fast emerging as a strong Democratic presidential candidate, and Mr. Kennedy''s relationships with women, and also sabotaged the campaign of another candidate, Ed Muskie, including the leak of a fake letter denouncing him. All this was to help Mr. Nixon win reelection. After the Watergate incident, Mr. Haldeman then conspired with Mr. Nixon to cover up the scandal and obstruct investigations.

The problem with a group of people from the same region who swear allegiance to their charismatic leader, such as the California cronies of Mr. Nixon, is that they are insensitive to the public concept of power. No brake is applied from within the group when the members use their influence to meddle in political affairs and appointments. Such groups corrupt the political culture and leave politics in a deplorable state. It is no coincidence that such cronies are found in every scandal.

The Donggyo-dong faction, the group of people loyal to President Kim Dae-jung since his days as an opposition leader, recently suffered a blow after former Supreme Council member Kwon Roh-kap, the Millennium Democratic Party kingpin, was forced to resign and the party leadership was changed. This is an extremely fortunate development for Korea''s politics, since it offers a chance for our political system to recover its health. The Donggyo-dong faction members met last month and, in a pitiful and childish scene, took the blame for the faction''s weakened hold on power and comforted each other.

The Donggyo-dong faction needs cleansing because the members are "family," who are united with the bond of strong loyalty to President Kim. Respecting and being loyal to a leader cannot be faulted, of course. Problems arise, however, because such an exclusive organization made up solely of people sharing specific tendencies block all external influences and drive out rationality. They are not the right organizations for a public and open political party.

It is human nature for a leader to want to surround himself with loyal supporters. The members of the Donggyo-dong faction are Mr. Kim''s comrades who endured all kinds of hardships when they joined in Mr. Kim''s struggle for democracy. These people, who share such a close affinity with Mr. Kim that they can almost read his mind, lack the objectivity to run a nation and a political party, however. The Watergate scandal teaches us that it will be for the good of the nation and also for Mr. Kim if the Donggyo-dong faction remains dormant for the last two years of Mr. Kim''s presidency.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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