The lessons of Watergate

Subject to revisionism and neglected in the era of obsession with screens small and large, history is instructive to those who bother to contemplate it.

Watergate endures principally for the purpose of providing the suffix for the scandal of the moment, but that drama and its climax leave lessons far nobler than initially comprehended and currently recalled.

For those rendered by youth unable to properly appreciate neckties the width of torsos, lapels extending to the shoulders and, of course, bell-bottoms and sideburns, a brief refresher: In 1972, a “Keystone Cops” crew of burglars twice broke into national Democratic Party headquarters, the first time to bug a phone there and the second to repair the bug. The latter endeavor was detected by a security guard, and authorities subsequently arrested five men.

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward — whose name perhaps rings a bell — reported three days later that an address book belonging to one of the burglars included the name of former CIA agent Howard Hunt, a consultant to Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States. This led Woodward and Carl Bernstein, another Post reporter, on a journalistic odyssey that revealed Nixon’s cover-up of his knowledge of the crimes and culminated in his resignation from office, a singular event in the history of the country.

In the cauldron of the scandal and the bitterness of its end, Nixon’s axiomatic flaws were on national display. Nearly a half-century after his resignation, and more than a quarter-century after his death, he remains an emblem of corruption, narcissism and paranoia. And yet, especially considered in the present moment, that represents only a partial view of the man, his time and those around him.

That scandal produced three climactic events. In the first, a group of senators visited the White House to advise Nixon there were sufficient votes to impeach him and remove him from office. Those either old enough to recall that time or who have taken more than passing notice of history know the man at the forefront of that moment was Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona known as the father of modern conservatism. He led the group in urging Nixon to resign.

By that time, secret tapes from the Oval Office, recorded at the behest of Nixon himself, had been unearthed revealing the president’s role in the cover-up. This left him with few avenues for escape and his partisan allies without adequate rhetorical means of supporting him.

His fate clear, Nixon decided to quit, elevating Vice President Gerald Ford to the highest office in the land. A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, ending what the new president described as “our long national nightmare.” Observers speculated that decision cost Ford the election in 1976, but people on both sides of the political divide later would concur that it was a necessary act to begin the process of recovery from a national trauma.

History sometimes treats its subjects differently than the moment in which they lived. Nixon evolved into a kind of tragic figure. Gazing at him across the decades from the vantage point of the modern hour casts a slightly brighter light upon him. A simplistic view would say he had no choice but to resign. The tapes meant the jig was up. That is true. But it is also true he might have carried out the fight regardless of the odds stacked against him or the harm it might have done the country.

Instead, he surrendered, a thing Nixon was ordinarily loathe to do.

The current occupant of the White House, and his supporters and detractors, would do their country good to take note. It is long since time to close this chapter in American history and move on to the next.

* Guest editorial from Hearald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va.


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