“Watergate” has been irrevocably tattooed on the national psyche, the story so familiar that only the very young need a primer. For most, the very name Watergate is synonymous with government corruption and the uniquely odd and criminally paranoid 37th president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.
To members of a certain generation, it is a where-were-you-when question. Where were you during the Watergate hearings? For those over 50 or so, the answer likely is “glued to the television.” The Watergate hearings were great TV not only because of the content of the investigation but also because of the characters. Two consistently spring to mind — Sam Ervin, the colorful North Carolina senator who oversaw the Senate hearings, and Maureen Dean, the gorgeous blond wife of then-White House counsel (and now-ubiquitous) John Dean. Many will confess that the ethereal Mo, who wore her platinum hair pulled back into a tight bun and sat like a sparkling hallucination in a battlefield of wounded men, was as mesmerizing as the testimony.
This past week has been filled with reunions of various remaining characters, including Dean (but, alas, not Mo), and not least, of course, the forever-famous “Woodward and Bernstein,” (Bob and Carl), the two Washington Post reporters who brought the story to light and whose names have themselves become institutionalized, thanks in part to the movie based on their book, “All the President’s Men.”
Much debate has centered on the meaning of Watergate. For their part, Woodward and Bernstein, sharing a byline for the first time in more than three decades, recently wrote in The Washington Post that Watergate really represented five overlapping wars that Nixon was conducting — against the anti-Vietnam movement, the news media, Democrats, the judiciary and history itself.
Nixon was a criminal to be sure, even if he never quite saw it that way. He broke the law, was willing to bribe, burgle, wiretap, lie and extort for political gain. Somewhere along his dark path of consuming paranoia, he lost any flicker of light to help him see that he was lost. Woodward and Bernstein say that our allegiance to the adage that the cover-up is always worse than the crime is misplaced in Nixon’s case.
Beyond the obvious, Nixon and the Watergate episode did great, perhaps irreparable, harm to the American spirit. A generation already traumatized by a war that ended up killing 58,000 of its brothers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers lost any remaining innocence, as well as trust in authority and faith in governmental institutions. The flag our forefathers raised on the moral high ground looked suddenly shabby and soiled.
When even the president of the United States was willing to burglarize the American people, there was no one left to trust. Adding insult, the entire episode was a cheap suit, sleazy and banal. Could the greatest nation in human history really be driven to a constitutional crisis by a bungled, third-rate burglary?
Not incidentally, Watergate also created something else of significance — the celebrity journalist and a generation of wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins. Those of us who found our way to newsrooms all wanted the big story, if not necessarily the movie with attendant fame and fortune. What most realized rather quickly was that journalism was more like laying bricks than leaping tall buildings. Deep Throat was just a disgusting porn flick and The Big Story was more likely a city council debate over tax millage rates.
We couldn’t all be Woodwards and Bernsteins, it turned out, but the presumption of corruption and government as the enemy was a pervasive, defining force in newsrooms across the nation. And this force in turn helped shape a relentless cynicism that persists today even as it morphs into something else.
And what is that? Hard to say, but a country without faith or trust in its institutions — from the presidency to Congress to the judiciary and even to the once glorious, swashbuckling, truth-seeking press — is going to have a rough go of things. As seems to be the case. Given the spoils of what took place on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate office building, Nixon was no petty thief. He was a grand larcenist.
Whether we can recover those stolen goods — nothing less than America’s promise to itself — is Watergate’s true legacy and it is punctuated with a question mark.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.