Archeology of a crisis: Sifting the shards of Watergate

MICHAEL SCHUDSON

June 17, 1992|By Michael Schudson

A THIRD of America's population was not born or not yet in kindergarten when, 20 years ago today, burglars working for the Committee to Re-Elect the President were arrested breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington.

It's no wonder that the memory of Watergate has grown dim.

A survey of high school students in 1986 found that one in three could not place Watergate as an event that happened after 1950 and one in five associated it with the resignation of some president other than Richard Nixon.

In 1975, just a year after Nixon resigned, senators debating a permanent legal provision for appointing a special prosecutor complained that the memory of Watergate was fading.

This is no surprise to those who insist that Americans are amnesiac, that Watergate is forgotten.

Watergate, they say, changed nothing. Corruption and presidential abuses of power have continued. The media are complacent and compliant. Congress proved maddeningly cautious in pursuing Ronald Reagan over Iran-contra.

But this view expects more from individual memories than they can deliver and fails to recognize that memory is stored not only in our minds but in social institutions and cultural symbols.

The special prosecutor law was enacted in 1978, after all.

Words and phrases that were unfamiliar in June 1972 are now part of our public political vocabulary -- stonewall, cover-up, "what did he know and when did he know it?," smoking gun and, of course, the suffix "gate."

Our expectations of public life have also changed.

Consider how much more thinkable impeachment became after Watergate.

Calls for President Nixon's removal did not start until October 1973, 16 months into the crisis.

Yet when the Iran-contra story broke in November 1986, the impeaching of Ronald Reagan was under discussion almost instantly and a special prosecutor was appointed within weeks.

Post-Watergate legislation made conflicts of interest more visible (via campaign finance laws), made investigation of the government easier (the Freedom of Information Act was strengthened) and required the president to take personal responsibility for authorizing covert operations (through reforms of the intelligence agencies).

The political climate after Watergate also empowered public-interest groups (such as Common Cause), encouraged more open and democratic legislative procedures in Congress and state and local governments and helped reinvigorate the muckraking ideal in journalism.

None of these changes made a revolution. They just made it a little harder to abuse power without getting caught. And they changed the agenda of politics, making the personal integrity of public officials a central and abiding issue.

Ever since Watergate it has been rhetorically profitable to run against Washington. Jimmy Carter ran as an outsider, as did Ronald Reagan. Witness the success of Ross Perot today.

Interpretations of Watergate differ in important ways to this day.

There is still debate about Mr. Nixon's role -- not about his guilt for abuses of power and obstruction of justice, on which almost all observers are agreed, but about whether his abuses were any worse than those of his predecessors who didn't get caught.

Thanks to Watergate, the mid-1970s saw a wave of investigations that made it clear that previous presidents had also abused their power.

The question of Watergate in 1974 was whether to impeach a president; by 1976 the question was whether to impeach a system that gave rise to an impeachable president.

There is a related debate on whether the public drama of Watergate was primarily a matter of good guys rooting out bad guys or whether it was largely a convenient accident that liberals used to destroy an enemy while sweeping under the rug the abuses of their own leaders, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

A few critics see Watergate as primarily a public spectacle stage-managed by liberal elites.

Most agree, however, that grave offenses took center stage.

Watergate taught us that presidents may overreach themselves and threaten constitutional government and that the remedy of public exposure and the threat of impeachment are necessary instruments in the toolbox of American democracy.

That much is remembered, even if the details, including important ones, are lost in a hazy past.

Nixon once said that Watergate would one day be no more than a footnote in the history textbooks. He hoped that his foreign policy would be remembered rather than his fall from power.

This is unlikely to happen. When you look at school textbooks or children's games or picture books about the presidents, what remains when pages are whittled down to paragraphs and paragraphs to captions or phrases is "the president who resigned."

And while Mr. Nixon's "rehabilitation" has become a leading symbol of the American capacity for forgetfulness, its dimensions have been exaggerated.

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