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Can our murder mysteries suggest metaphors for Watergate (1971-1974), Iran-Contra (1984-1987) and our present 'Trumpgate'?
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Faculty in Humanities, Austin College
Sep 17, 2018
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In past years I have watched various series of crime-solving mysteries. Most of them, from Sherlock Holmes to Murder She Wrote, begin with a crime scene leaving the viewer in suspense until the end when the criminal is identified—often the most unexpected person. In the Columbo series, however, this homicide detective is faced at the very beginning with a murder, and all the viewers are clear who the criminal is, but Columbo is not, except for undocumented instinct. Instead of suspense, we follow the ingenious and logical steps that lead Lieutenant Columbo to the murderer’s indictment—often someone in the community of high regard, wealth and power.

Watergate’s origins appeared linked to the frustration of President Nixon after Daniel Ellsberg, in mid-1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers which exposed the hypocrisy behind our military presence in Vietnam. In mid-1972, the “White House Plumbers” were caught breaking in to the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Building in DC. In mid-September, 1972, the Watergate burglars are indicted and two plead guilty; but on November 7, President Nixon is re-elected on his “secret plan for peace” in Vietnam.  At that time, his involvement in Watergate was not an issue. In March and April, 1973, largely due to White House counsel John Dean’s cooperation, the White House is implicated, John Dean is fired and nationally televised hearings begin. In November, the president assures the country: “I am not a crook.” In 1974, impeachment hearings begin, and by August 9, Nixon resigns. It took three years for the scandal to reach the White House; thus making Watergate more comparable metaphorically to the Sherlock Holmes type of mystery where the crook-in-chief is revealed at the end. 

Such is also the case with the Iran-Contra Affair which began ten years later when the USA and Israel cooperated in giving weapons Israel had seized (after invading Lebanon in 1982) from the Palestinians to the “Contra” guerillas in Nicaragua. In 1985, Oliver North revised the operation by dealing directly with the Contras whose aim was to overthrow  the democratically elected Sandinista government. The plan had to be secret since it violated US policy and laws. The money the USA received from Iran for military arms was secretly funneled to the Contras in Nicaragua; but not until November, 1987, was the Congressional Committee’s report published, After four years, the truth came out, President Reagan pardoned Oliver North, and life went on. As Reagan exited the presidency in January, 1989, the charges in this “Brokers of Death” arms case were dropped. The major question of the moment, as it was after Watergate: “How will Republicans survive?” 

“Trumpgate” is still in process, but we can already affirm that it is more comparable (metaphorically) to the Columbo homicide series. The business community in the New York-New Jersey area knew that Donald Trump was a bully, often left contracts only partially paid, made anonymous statements, sometimes using a pseudonym. He had problems with truth in business dealings and his real estate partners refused to issue him loans-- one of the reasons that Mr. Trump had to look “outside the USA” for large loans. Even in the run-up to the 2016 elections, his nationally televised derogatory comments about women, Mexicans, Muslims, and many others, suggested that his target base was white, male, and xenophobic. 

Robert Mueller’s role here today is metaphorically a “Columbo.” Mueller has long been working behind the scenes in the search for legal proof of crimes that most of the informed public has already taken for granted. Most know who the “Suspect-in-Chief” is! Once again, a major question is “How will the Republicans survive?” But a more hopeful question is “How can we make today’s “Republican” Party really Republican again?—a party that will help restore the checks and balances that have been so indespensable to US democracy. 

Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Ph.D.

Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities