40 years later, Watergate still matters

Forty years ago, my wife and I were visiting her uncle in Washington, D.C.

We met him for lunch on June 18, and as we approached the table where he was sitting, he looked perplexed.

“Guess what,” he said, “someone broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee last night.”

Soon after, we changed the subject and ate lunch. None of us had any idea that the break-in at the DNC office in the business complex of the Watergate Hotel – what the White House later would try to dismiss as “a third-rate burglary” – was about to evolve into the biggest governmental scandal in national history, eventually compelling President Richard M. Nixon to resign from office.

He was the first and, so far, only U.S. president to do so, testimony to the seriousness of the crimes committed by his administration. Even 40 years later, it is sobering to look back on Nixon’s remarkable abuse of power and the lengths to which he went to keep it secret.

With the perspective of four decades, does the Watergate scandal, with its many tentacles, still seem as consequential as it did when it occurred? Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who exposed Watergate, think that, with all the ensuing revelations from Nixon’s White House tapes, the scandal was even more serious than most people suspected at the time.

They note that Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to reconstruct history and minimize his role in Watergate. They also note that the attempted sleight of hand was an abject failure; Nixon couldn’t make his villainy disappear.

Historians will record the mitigating factors – Nixon’s astuteness at foreign policy, his brilliant and timely embrace of China. But Watergate overshadows everything.

Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in to succeed him shortly thereafter the same day.

In remarks after the swearing-in ceremony, Ford intoned, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare was over.”

Certainly, Watergate had been traumatic for the nation. But there was also something bracing about Nixon’s downfall.

The nation didn’t fall apart. The fundamentals of our Constitution functioned as they were supposed to. And a free press succeeded in ferreting out the facts, despite the power of the presidency to obstruct that effort.

My Dad, a long-time Nixon hater, used to greet friends, especially Republican friends, with a hearty, “Hey, isn’t Watergate great!” His point, beyond gloating and needling his GOP buddies, was that the system worked, which was something worth celebrating.

For his birthday, I framed the front page of the Post with its giant, chunky headline, “NIXON RESIGNS.” He hung it in the hallway for years until it turned yellow and faded.

I worry, with newsroom staffs also fading nationwide, whether the press will have the resources to mount another in-depth, years-long investigation like those of the Watergate era – not only at the Post but also the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald – if a similar national crisis occurs. Or will the next crook in the White House get away with it?

One thing is for sure: even after 40 years, Watergate still matters.

Contact Werrell, opinion page editor of the Rock Hill Herald, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.