Watergate: Destined All Along to Fade

PETER A, JAY

June 14, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Early on the morning of June 17, 20 years ago, when I was working for the Washington Post, I received a call at home from Howard Simons, the managing editor. There had been a break-in at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex, and five people had been arrested.

It was a Saturday, and most editors were off. I was the deputy metropolitan editor at the time, and was scheduled to work that day. Howard called because his newsman's instincts told him this might be an interesting story, and he thought I'd want to get an early start on it.

As things turned out, it was an extraordinary story, one thadominated the news in one way or another for more than two years. In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned because of the scandal. Other careers were shattered as well, and the political landscape was altered for a generation.

A wave of self-styled reformers entered Congress in the electioof 1974, promising change. Various ethics-in-government measures were approved, special prosecutors were turned loose, and lofty promises were made to set higher standards. Collectively, all these efforts became known as "post-Watergate morality."

Whether the overall performance of our public servants was eveaffected by all of this is a matter for debate. It's a fact, though, that many members of that Congressional class of 1974, by now influential insiders, were prominent among those listed recently as habitual check-bouncers at the House bank. If there was such a thing as post-Watergate morality, it appears in 1992 to have fizzled out.

Now that 20 years have passed since the famous break-in, mosof the details of Watergate have faded from our collective memory. We still use some of the metaphors of the period -- the smoking gun, the big enchilada, stonewalling, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind -- but have forgotten who used them first, or why.

Hardly anyone can still remember who Tony Ulasewicz was, odistinguish between John Erlichman and H. R. Haldeman, or name five members of the Senate Watergate committee. Most of us probably know that Richard Nixon resigned because of Watergate, but beyond that, the details seem unimportant.

For those who see Watergate as a classic American morality play, and want it preserved intact in the national memory, it's frustrating to watch the story blur as it slips farther into the past. But blurring and fading were inevitable. Watergate was a wonderful news story. It made even better entertainment, in both the real-life and Hollywood versions. Like most other grubby political scandals, however, it makes dull history.

Michael Schudson, author of a just-published book calle"Watergate in American Memory," notes that children -- those most unforgiving critics -- find Watergate tales tedious in the extreme. One publisher did go so far as to put out a book on Watergate for kids, but the author admitted she couldn't even persuade her own 13-year-old to read it.

Although the country followed its unfolding with keen interest, Watergate was in the beginning and remained to its end very much a Washington story. Beyond the Capital Beltway, people watched the hearings and read the news stories, but didn't have the sense of personal involvement that goes with a war or an exciting political campaign.

Following the hearings on television was much like following a soap opera, so much in fact that viewers would call the networks with suggestions, or requests that favorite witnesses (like "that nice John Dean") be brought back for a reprise. The soap-opera analogy wasn't lost on ratings-conscious producers, who churned out a series of Watergate docudramas based on books by Erlichman, Dean and G. Gordon Liddy.

But though the personalities and the drama quickly caught our attention, they were almost as quickly forgotten, at least for those outside of Washington and the political community.

That was certainly true in my own case. Although I was involved directly with the Post's Watergate coverage at the very beginning, for most of the first year after the break-in I was on the very distant sidelines, on leave from the newspaper for a fellowship at a university.

When a visiting Washington reporter suggested I must regret not being at work, I was incredulous; although I read the stories in the Post and other papers with interest, Watergate's significance was much reduced by distance. It was not until the summer of 1973, when I returned to Washington and helped cover the Senate hearings, that I felt some of the excitement return.

Probably one of the reasons that Watergate made such an impression on the Washington community, and remains such an important part of the capital's mythology, is that its most visible impact was on Washington careers -- those it created as much as those it destroyed. Plenty of people who achieved a moment of fame through some association with Watergate are still living off that recognition today, and most of them work inside the Capital Beltway.

In any case, the modest hoopla now commemorating th passage of two decades since the story broke isn't inappropriate. Watergate was a garish and occasionally very funny moment in American history, and it did make people think differently about their government. But like Teapot Dome in the '20s and the shenanigans of Billie Sol Estes in the '60s, in the long run it'll still remain a footnote.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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