After 20 years, Memories of Watergate Have Dimmed

STEVEN DORNFELD

June 17, 1992|By STEVEN DORNFELD

Over the last two decades, the Watergate break-in and the revelations that followed have faded from memory, even for those of Americans who sat transfixed in front of their televisions as the scandalous affair unfolded.

H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy, Rose Mary Woods and the 18 1/2 -minute gap, the presidential declaration, ''I am not a crook,'' and the senatorial inquiry, ''What did the president know and when did he know it?'' -- all are a little hazy today.

For Americans young and old, Watergate has been eclipsed by the many ''-gates'' that have followed. Indeed, the botched break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters -- which took place 20 years ago today -- might seem like rather small potatoes in comparison to the misdeeds of Ronald Reagan and all of that president's men in the Iran-Contra affair.

Today, it seems almost beyond belief that a sitting president was on the verge of impeachment, and that he escaped criminal prosecution only because of he received a full pardon from his successor.

In the intervening years, Richard Nixon has done a masterful job of rehabilitating himself. Capitalizing on his foreign policy expertise, he has published books, made well-timed trips to foreign capitals, offered advice to presidents, and granted interviews to selected columnists and television personalities.

Two years ago, Mr. Nixon received almost a hero's welcome as he returned to Capitol Hill for his first public visit since his downfall. As the New York Times reported, ''Congressional aides with only distant childhood memories of Watergate applauded, cheered and jostled to shake his hand. Newt Gingrich, the

House Republican whip, positively glowed. Even the worldly Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, seemed a bit nonplused.''

Some hero.

Mr. Nixon was not the first or the last politician to spy on the opposition. He probably could have survived the break-in if he had been willing to sacrifice the White House ''plumbers,'' as the burglars were known, and a few of their bosses at CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President.

Instead, within days of the burglary, Mr. Nixon began actively participating in the cover-up, using the powers of the nation's highest office to impede a criminal investigation.

Thanks to his own office tape-recordings, Americans ultimately learned not only that their president was personally involved in the two-year-long effort to obstruct justice, but also that he had engaged in political dirty tricks, maintained an enemies' list, approved the payment of hush money, eavesdropped on phone conversations of his own aides and misused the IRS, FBI and CIA for political purposes.

Warren Burger, Mr. Nixon's appointee as chief justice of the United States, played a vital role in the president's ultimate undoing.

On behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Burger delivered the 1974 decision requiring the White House to produce tape recordings that might contain evidence of criminal wrongdoing. ''The generalized assertion of [executive] privilege must yield to the demonstrated specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial,'' he said.

Two weeks later, the president resigned with no apologies or admissions of guilt, saying only, ''I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress to continue. . . . ''

Certainly, the Watergate scandal demonstrated the strength of the American political system -- to oust a corrupt leader without the necessity of an assassination or military coup. It produced some important corrective legislation, including the only meaningful federal campaign reforms enacted to date.

And it showcased some genuine heroes, including investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker, prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, and U.S. District Judge John Sirica, to name a few.

But for a citizenry still traumatized by the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, Watergate fueled political cynicism and distrust that persist today in a whole generation of Americans. It contributed to the popular notion that all politicians are crooks, the precipitous decline in voter participation and the repeated dTC success of political ''outsiders'' -- Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and now, perhaps, Ross Perot.

Richard Nixon may have recovered from his wounds, but the American political system remains on the critical list.

Steven Dornfeld is associate editorial page editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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