One of the more peculiar legacies of the Watergate scandal is so obvious that we hardly notice it.
Watergate was the name of the Washington office complex where five men – who were later revealed to have worked on behalf of US President Richard Nixon’s administration – were discovered breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Their arrest on June 17, 1972 – today 50 years ago – not only ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation, but also fueled an international trend to add “gate” to anything that looks scandalous.
The fashion was started by New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, apparently defending his former boss by showing how common scandals were. Early cases include Koreagate (following revelations of secret Korean donations to congressional candidates in the 1976 election) and Billygate (named after President Jimmy Carter’s quirky younger brother, whose high-profile maneuvers promote a new beer, Billy Bear, and the receipt of money from the Libyan government included) government and Lancegate (caused by the dubious business affairs of Carter cabinet member Bert Lance).
Fifty years later, the suffix is as popular as ever. When Will Smith stormed onto the stage and slapped MC Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife at this year’s Oscars, the incident was immediately branded as Slapgate.
More seriously, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnston and his colleagues defied the government’s ban on social gatherings designed to combat the spread of COVID, the term Partygate was quickly and harmfully coined by the media.
Sometimes “gates” go head to head, especially known during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. About a month before the election, a band appeared from Trump bragging to a male colleague about the things you can do to women if you’re a star. This inevitably attracted the distasteful label, Pussygate, and dominated the news so much that many thought Trump would have to withdraw his candidacy.
The other side of the equation came a few weeks later, when Emailgate made a comeback. It was revealed a few years earlier that Hillary Clinton used private e-mail rather than the official government server when she was Secretary of State. Now FBI Director James Comey has announced that he is reopening investigations. By giving Trump a license to expose Clinton’s ‘corruption’, the decision guaranteed that the last weeks of the campaign would be dominated by this issue. Days before voting day, Comey Clinton cleaned up.
The prominence of the issue, highlighting what many thought was the tendency of the Clintons to make their own rules, may have caused some potential supporters to stay home, thus influencing the election result.
Read more: From disrespect to irrelevance: the rise and fall of the bad tabloids
My favorite “gate” arose from the scandal that engulfed America’s most famous TV evangelist, Jim Bakker, and his wife Tammy after their multi-million dollar empire collapsed. Jim was eventually arrested for fraud and various sexual links. The scandal was dubbed Pearlygate.
Maybe the ultimate pun came during two scandals called Gategate. The first was a brief episode in the colorful career of Colonel Oliver North, an official of the Reagan administration now associated with the Iran-Contra scandal (sometimes called Irangate). During the riot, North was given taxpayer assistance to increase security at his home; the extravagance involved is defined as Gategate.
The other Gategate stretched for several years. In 2012, Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell tried to leave Downing Street at the main gate, only to be told by a police officer to use another one. He allegedly lost his temper and amid his stream of abuse the officer called a “pleb”. The ensuing uproar forced Mitchell to resign. Both politician and police officer launched defamation cases against the other, but the judge ruled in the police officer’s favor. British media used both Plebgate and Gategate as shorthand for the case.
The term has also spread to Australia, but not always to describe allegations with a solid foundation. Utegate involved a charge of corruption spectacularly launched in 2009 by opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan. Turnbull’s allegation that they acted improperly on behalf of a car dealer in Queensland seemed dramatic and damaging, but it turned out the key evidence was a forgery by Treasury official Godwin Grech. The charge collapsed into disgrace.
The list of scandals continues. When it was revealed that NSW Prime Minister Barry O’Farrell had misled the Independent Commission against Corruption by denying that he had received a $ 3000 bottle of Grange Hermitage from a liberal colleague, Grangegate was the obvious shorthand. O’Farrell resigned as prime minister. When the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, used taxpayers’ money to fly to a Liberal Party fundraiser at a cost of about $ 5,000, Choppergate was born. Bishop resigned as speaker and lost by-election in the next election.
When Australian cricketers tampered with the ball during a test match in South Africa in 2018, the affair was marked as Sandpaper holes. Three players, including captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner, received suspensions.
Australia had its own Watergate in 2019. A $ 80 million water repurchase under the Murray – Darling Basin scheme went to a company registered in the Cayman Islands. Minister Barnaby Joyce approved the payment, but it turned out that the company was founded by another minister, Angus Taylor.
Read more: Australia’s ‘water holes’: here’s what taxpayers need to know about water repurchases
After 50 years, however, “gate” has lost much of its power – and may even be a stumbling block to rational debate.
On one infamous occasion, for example, the suffix was widely used to attribute serious misconduct while none occurred. In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit on global warming at the end of 2009, e-mails from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia were hacked and snippets were selectively published by a group of climate skeptics.
A series of inquiries eventually confirmed the integrity of the Center’s research, but the hackers managed to criticize climate science at a strategic moment, and part of their success was in the almost universal use in the media of the derogatory term, Climategate.
Above all, what these 50 years’ examples show is that we have become increasingly insensitive to many kinds of outrageous behavior. In a long-running scandal with several twists – such as Boris Johnson’s Partygate, or Watergate itself – the label could be useful shorthand. Often that which once attracted attention and sometimes an amusing gimmick has become an outdated cliché.