Watergate. Has it really been 40 years? I was just a small-town teenager in the summer of 1972, but I remember being fascinated as the break-in and protracted cover-up unfolded. It was a drama like none other. When it was over, lives and careers had been ruined, 40 men went to jail, a U.S. president resigned and a nation was collectively sick of the whole mess. Then, there was the pardon and Nixon’s years in exile when he tried to rewrite his place in history.
As a nation, we were forever changed.
On Sunday, June 10th, the two reporters at the epicenter, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were on “Face the Nation” to mark this momentous anniversary. In a lengthy interview with Bob Schieffer, the seasoned pair look back and recall how as young, competitive reporters they were thrown together to cover this “third-rate burglary,” as Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, called it at the time.
In the CBS interview, Woodward and Bernstein spoke thoughtfully about the us-against-them culture of the Nixon White House and the political climate of the early 1970s. They recounted the delicate balance of reporting the crimes of a powerful, vindictive administration when few other media outlets were giving Watergate much attention and how the tide began to turn when Walther Cronkite devoted 15 minutes of an evening broadcast to the burgeoning story. As if it were yesterday, they recalled the moment they realized Watergate was going to bring down the 37th President of the United States.
They talked about the Nixon’s taping system and how his own words on the crude recordings are damning time and again. President Nixon reached the pinnacle of power yet was shockingly petty and obsessed with doing everything he could to bring down others — both the powerful and the weak.
They also spoke about the effect Watergate has had on American politics, the news media and our society in general.
I highly recommend watching the CBS interview. Equally as interesting is a comprehensive op-ed piece by Woodward and Bernstein that was published in The Washington Post a few days ago. In the article, they look back on Nixon’s Watergate as well as the other “wars” he fought against his perceived enemies.
Woodward and Bernstein have come to this conclusion after 40 years: “Nixon was far worse than we thought.”
So, the story is over, right? Not so fast.
Historians, reporters and others are still sifting through mountains of papers and tapes and will be for the foreseeable future. The long-term lessons of Watergate will only be revealed with the passage of time, and 40 years really doesn’t give the necessary perspective. History requires a century or more for the dots to connect and the consequences to be fully apparent. Even then, not everyone will agree, but there probably will be a big-picture consensus.
I won’t make it another 60 years. I might get another 35, if I’m lucky. It makes me a bit sad to think that I’ll never know how history will ultimately judge Richard Milhous Nixon and how his downfall truly affected our nation. Yet, I got to live through it. Honestly, I really wouldn’t trade that for anything.