I was four years old when the Watergate burglary happened. I was six years old when President Nixon ultimately resigned. I have vague memories of adults talking about it and the news coverage of it but I have no concrete memory of the events themselves.
Two generations and at least half of a third additional generation were born after Watergate. They have no memory at all of the biggest White House scandal in American history. All they know of it is what they’ve learned in history classes, conversations, and the occasional documentary or TV special. And all of those sources tell the same story of what we supposedly learned from Watergate.
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom of the lessons learned from Watergate is incomplete. Since the day Richard Nixon left the White House, we’ve been told that the big lesson of Watergate is that the system works. No one, including the President of the United States, is above the law. Our democratic institutions – checks and balances, an independent judiciary, an active and aggressive press, and elected officials who put country before party – will protect us from leaders who seek to abuse their power.
Does anyone else see the problem in that last sentence?
As we hear rumblings of a new White House scandal that leaders on both sides are now saying is at the level of Watergate, it’s important to remember the FULL lesson of Watergate, not the one that’s been repeated ad nauseum for 43 years.
If it hadn’t been for Woodward and Bernstein and other aggressive reporters; or a Supreme Court that ruled unanimously against a sitting president; or a Congress that took the job of investigating Watergate seriously and not just try to score political points; or honorable Republicans who pushed the administration to reveal all that it was trying to keep hidden and then voted for Articles of Impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee or went to Nixon and told him he had to go once the evidence was clear; or even a president who ultimately had enough respect for the Constitution and the law to abide by the Supreme Court’s decision even though it meant the end of his presidency, Watergate would have had a very different outcome.
Once you look at the whole picture – and not just what we want to take comfort in – it’s clear that the lesson of Watergate is incomplete: the system works – but only if those in power allow it to work.
It’s a much more sobering lesson. And one that we should remember as we dig deeper into the current administration’s growing scandal.