Forty-four years ago, the country found itself riveted by the Watergate scandal. It produced a long-simmering investigation, slow to gather steam, that eventually had millions of Americans watching dramatic hearings on television. From the beginning, that investigation was fiercely attacked by the president, and support for it fell largely along partisan lines.


Slowly, and painstakingly, the facts about the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up began to emerge, and the White House became more desperate in response. Investigators were fired and high-profile members of the administration resigned, as public outrage grew. Eventually, secret tapes were forced into the open, and the end soon followed for Richard Nixon.

The Watergate scandal set in motion a series of dramatic changes in Washington whose effects are on display today. We began to lose faith in government and politicians. Partisanship and the desire for retribution grew. Congress become more divided and tribal, as Sen. John McCain said last week, and also far less effective. Today, Washington has become a place where common sense is an endangered species and friendships across the aisle are suspect, at best, and subject to punishment, at worst.

Two prominent features of the modern Congress are making it increasingly difficult for us to function as a nation, in the face of immense challenges here, and across the globe. One is the increasing tendency for the party in power to try to operate without any involvement from the other party. Health care is the latest illustration. Seven years ago, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act without any Republican votes, which unleashed a torrent of attacks from Republicans about “back-room deals.” Now that Republicans are in control, they’re doing exactly the same thing.

The second disturbing trend is our slide into an era of permanent – and mostly partisan – investigations. From the time of George Washington to Nixon’s Watergate, a period of 183 years, there were approximately 42 congressional investigations. In the last 44 years, there have been 58.

Pre-Watergate investigations tended to focus on external threats to the country, the conduct of wars or individual corruption. Today’s investigations, by contrast, are often little more than thinly disguised extensions of the last campaign, or run-ups to the next.


It all seems to have begun with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947, when unbridled anti-communist hysteria lead to public assaults on liberals, actors, writers and “fellow travelers,” who were carelessly accused of being in league with, or at least too friendly toward, Russia. Then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy single-handedly propelled the idea that televised hearings could be used to besmirch, incapacitate or even destroy your political enemies by playing on voters’ worst fears.

Twenty-five years later came Watergate, which brought down a president and left simmering anger within elements of his party. Since then, it’s been an all-out war of investigations in Washington, by both parties.

Here’s a quiz: See if you can guess which party initiated the following investigations (hint: It helps, in most cases, to know which party controlled Congress at the time). Iran-Contra, 9/11, the 2008 financial meltdown, the savings and loan debacle, the tobacco industry, Enron, defense spending abuses, Three Mile Island, POWs and MIAs, the Gulf oil spill, stimulus spending, campaign financing, welfare fraud, education, Hurricane Katrina, Solyndra, Whitewater, Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the Hillary Clinton investigations.

Whitewater, in particular, seemed to both raise the ante and change the rules on investigations. Set up to review an early Clinton real estate deal, and ultimately spearheaded by an openly partisan investigator, Ken Starr, it consumed four years and nearly $80 million.

In the end, it produced no evidence of wrongdoing in Whitewater. But, by continually expanding and extending the scope of his investigation, Starr was eventually able to snare Bill Clinton in lies about the Monica Lewinsky affair, which had not even happened when the investigation began.

At the time, Republicans never once complained about Starr exceeding his mandate or engaging in a “witch hunt,” which is what Democrats then called it, and what the current president says about the Russia investigations.


Later, when Hillary Clinton looked like a possible contender for president, Republicans launched a wave of investigations of the State Department’s handling of Benghazi. As the race to the White House got closer, they seamlessly replaced those investigations with new ones targeting her email server.

Part of the problem with so many investigations is that it becomes harder to separate the important ones from the frivolous. There are currently five ongoing investigations of Russian influence in our national elections, prompted by what our national intelligence agencies have called serious threats to our democracy. President Trump and his supporters say that’s outrageous. Many of those same supporters applauded seven investigations centered on Benghazi.

But that’s Washington today, regrettably. A place of ferocious partisanship and shameless hypocrisy. Where civility has evaporated and common sense is only wistfully remembered.

Want to make America great again? Forget the idea that one party has all the answers and that the other party should be crushed. Support common-sense problem solvers who put the people and the country ahead of political parties and special interests. And keep in mind Benjamin Franklin’s warning to us, more than two centuries ago: “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

Alan Caron is the owner of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be contacted at:

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