WASHINGTON Forty years ago, all of America learned the name of a particular condominium, hotel and office complex along the Potomac in the nation’s capital.
“Watergate” has been irrevocably tattooed on the national psyche, the story so familiar that only the very young need a primer. For most, the very name Watergate is synonymous with government corruption and the uniquely odd and criminally paranoid 37th president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.
To members of a certain generation, it is a where-were-you-when question. Where were you during the Watergate hearings? For those over 50 or so, the answer likely is “glued to the television.” The Watergate hearings were great TV not only because of the content of the investigation but also because of the characters. Two consistently spring to mind – Sam Ervin, the colorful North Carolina senator who oversaw the Senate hearings. And Maureen Dean, the gorgeous blond wife of then-White House counsel (and now-ubiquitous) John Dean. Many will confess that the ethereal Mo, who wore her platinum hair pulled back into a tight bun and sat like a hallucination in a battlefield of wounded men, was as mesmerizing as the testimony.
This past week has been filled with reunions of various remaining characters, including Dean (but, alas, not Mo), and not least, of course, the forever-famous “Woodward and Bernstein,” (Bob and Carl), the Washington Post reporters who brought the story to light and whose names have themselves become institutionalized, thanks in part to the movie based on their book.
Much debate has centered on the meaning of Watergate. For their part, Woodward and Bernstein, recently wrote in The Washington Post that Watergate really represented five overlapping wars that Nixon was conducting – against the anti-Vietnam movement, the news media, Democrats, the judiciary and history itself.
Nixon was a criminal to be sure. He broke the law, was willing to bribe, burgle, wiretap, lie and extort for political gain.
Beyond the obvious, Nixon and the Watergate episode did great, perhaps irreparable, harm to the American spirit. A generation already traumatized by a war that ended up killing 58,000 lost any remaining innocence, as well as trust in authority and faith in governmental institutions.
When even the president of the United States was willing to burglarize the American people, there was no one left to trust. Adding insult, the entire episode was a cheap suit, sleazy and banal. Could the greatest nation in human history really be driven to a constitutional crisis by a bungled, third-rate burglary?
Watergate also created something else of significance – the celebrity journalist and a generation of wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins. We couldn’t all be Woodwards and Bernsteins, but the presumption of corruption and government as the enemy was a pervasive, defining force in newsrooms. This force in turn helped shape a relentless cynicism that persists today even as it morphs into something else.
And what is that? Hard to say, but a country without faith or trust in its institutions – from the presidency to Congress to the judiciary and even to the once glorious, swashbuckling, truth-seeking press – is going to have a rough go of things. Given the spoils of what took place on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate building, Nixon was no petty thief. He was a grand larcenist.
Whether we can recover those goods – America’s promise to itself – is Watergate’s true legacy and it is punctuated with a question mark.