From an editorial Thursday in the Chicago Tribune:
On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon went on national TV to announce his resignation effective at noon Aug. 9. No president had ever been forced from the White House, because no political scandal had ever destroyed a president’s ability to lead the nation. Nixon’s Watergate scandal did.
This week, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s departure, is a good time for reflection, because many Americans interested in political issues are too young to have experienced the shocking realization that their president lied to cover up wrongdoing. Yet they, like those among us who do remember, must contend with Watergate’s ugly and profound legacy of cynicism toward public office.
And so, especially to readers of the generation who get their news digitally and converse in social media hashtags:
When Nixon stepped down, to be replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford, he did not admit guilt or apologize. He didn’t say he was quitting to take responsibility for the debilitating scandal that began with a bizarre burglary of high-level Democrats by Republican operatives.
Instead, Nixon offered up with equal parts candor and calculation that he had lost political support in Congress. He was acknowledging that he expected to be impeached and removed from office. Fighting to save himself, he declared, would hurt the nation: “America needs a full-time president.”
The closest Nixon came to admitting culpability during his 15-minute Oval Office address was to express regret at the “injuries” he had caused. “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation,” he said, reading from a script.
That antiseptic description of events seems unsurprising today because, unfortunately, we hear it frequently in politics. It’s the evasive answer to a hard question – the non-apology apology. Mistakes were made. If I’ve offended anyone.
This gets at the crux of Watergate’s lasting impact: how a deceitful president obliterated trust in high office. By corrupting the presidency, Nixon destroyed an assumption about leadership and how people in authority should behave. There had been scandals previously, but nothing on this scale. And his guilt was evident because his complicity in the cover-up was caught on tape – by a recording system he had installed in the White House.
What does it all mean?
You could say Watergate represents one point on a continuum in which Americans became more skeptical and questioning of authority. But there’s a difference between skepticism, which is healthy, and cynicism, which corrodes.
It’s not a far leap from there to the world we live in today, where ugliness in politics abounds, and where it’s too often smart to assume the worst, not the best.
This is the lesson Nixon taught the generation of Americans who remember August 1974. The lesson he bequeathed to their children and grandchildren as well.