One of Watergate’s less obvious but lasting effects was that a politician’s “character”—a capacious term that would eventually encompass all kinds of supposed virtues and flaws—became an object of increasingly obsessive scrutiny for the press and the public. This was a noticeable shift. John F. Kennedy, for instance, was famously unfaithful to his wife, and yet, as Lesley Stahl told Radiolab in 2016, “we wouldn’t have dreamed of printing that even if the whispers were loud enough to spread around the country. It just wasn’t done.” Those decorous conventions collapsed in the wake of a more invasive press activated by Richard Nixon’s crimes. So, in the ensuing years, did whatever illusions the public may have had about its political leadership. Though there were many reasons for Nixon’s downfall, the Oval Office tapes that finally incriminated him beyond doubt did something else as well: They revealed the extent of the gap between the private machinations of the men who held office and their public bearing. And once the press had helped reveal that gap, it became impossible to close it up again.
As the tacit agreement to keep the private sins of politicians off-limits began to erode, a new political reality emerged. Its strictures—as with all such upheavals—were sometimes a little arbitrary. Many of the scandals were naturally about sex, and few were as much of a legal breach as the Watergate break-in and cover-up. In 1976, Rep. Wayne Hays resigned when it was discovered he’d been keeping a young woman on his staff who turned out, despite his forceful denials, to be his mistress. The financial side of this mattered, of course, but so—to a portion of the public that was coming to see the personal as political—did the cheating and lying, something that used to be dismissed as mere “scandal.” The so-called character question only increased in importance over the next few years: Jimmy Carter won in part by contrasting his moral probity with the Nixon-Ford administration’s (in 1979, James Fallows would backhandedly call Carter “as admirable a human being as has ever held the job”). And in 1987—charmingly called “the Year of the Bimbo” by the Wall Street Journal—Gary Hart, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, would be brought down after an affair was deemed (despite his protestations that infidelity “hasn’t been the business of the American public for 200 years”) not just newsworthy but disqualifying.