Watergate 20 Years Later

June 17, 1992

Twenty years ago today, burglars with connections to the White House were arrested after they had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. That break-in led to an organized conspiracy carried out by President Richard Nixon and his aides to use the law enforcement powers and agencies of the executive branch of the federal government to cover up official involvement with the crime. That in turn led to Mr. Nixon's forced resignation in disgrace, the only presidential resignation in the nation's history.

It is a good idea for the press and public to revisit this story from time to time. It is a cautionary tale -- and an inspiring one. And many people do not remember it. Millions of Americans who will vote in the presidential election in November were not even born on June 17, 1972. There are members of Congress today and influential public and private individuals in institutions that were potentially victims of the conspiracy who were not yet in their teens then and who were oblivious to the unfolding of the drama of 1973 and 1974.

In a nutshell, the president of the United States and his co-conspirators decided that they were above the law. The president said so in almost those words. They decided that the Constitution's insistence that this be a government of laws that all must obey could be ignored. They decided that the Constitution's careful division of power and responsibility among an executive, legislators and judges could be subverted.

"Watergate," one commentator later wrote, "unlike any previous scandal in our political history, was both a crisis and a reaffirmation of our constitutional form of government." This writer said that the apparent heroes of the day were not the obvious ones, by whom he meant, he said, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica, Sen. Sam Ervin and Rep. Peter Rodino. He was not putting these individuals down. Indeed, he was one of them; Judge Sirica wrote that quoted sentence. His point was that it was a constitutionally protected free press, a Congress with oversight and impeachment powers and an independent judiciary that made it possible for heroism to arise and prevail.

Our view is that our institutions did save the day -- but thank God for Messrs. Woodward, Bernstein, Ervin, Rodino and Sirica anyway. The nation was lucky to have them when the crisis came along. The nation was also lucky that the American people held public servants (and the press) in relatively high regard then. That helped bring about the resolution of the crisis. It is a potentially dangerous irony that the public's faith in the institutions that prevailed in 1972-1974 has diminished since then, in part because of flaws in and abuses of the good institutional reforms and attitudes brought about by "Watergate."

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