Given the passage of time since the Watergate scandal brought down an American president nearly four decades ago, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that panelists at a recent LSU forum on Watergate felt obliged to begin the program with an explanation of what Watergate was.
The LSU students in the audience at the recent forum weren’t born until 20 years after Watergate rocked the nation. Their presence was a useful reminder that for many Americans, Watergate is little more than a murky historical happening. Many other Americans have no awareness of Watergate at all.
The expert panelists at the LSU program did a good job of charting out the scandal and its grim implications for the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and the country at large. The forum, hosted by the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, included Barry Sussman, The Washington Post’s special Watergate editor; Earl J. Silbert, the first Watergate prosecutor; and Max Holland, a journalist and author who has written a book on the scandal.
At The Washington Post, Sussman oversaw the coverage of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post reporters who broke the Watergate story and aggressively chronicled the scandal. Sussman reminded listeners that Watergate wasn’t one instance of wrongdoing, but many. “It started off as a break-in,” Sussman recalled. “The scandal was peeled like an onion with many layers involved.”
The scandal took its name from the Watergate complex of apartment and office buildings in Washington, D.C. On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men for breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate. The burglars had ties to Nixon’s re-election campaign, and members of the White House staff were eventually implicated in the break-in and numerous other kinds of wrongdoing. Nixon consistently denied involvement in the misdeeds, but the release of tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office involving Nixon convinced most Americans that he had authorized a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Facing the threat of impeachment, he resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974.
The Watergate scandal seriously eroded Americans’ confidence in government. That erosion of trust frustrated the government’s ability to marshal public support for important national goals. In compromising the public’s trust, Watergate inspired a measure of cynicism about government that continues to shape our political landscape. But the scandal also underscored the value of citizen vigilance and a free press in keeping government power in check. Those lessons are worth remembering, even as Watergate continues to recede in the national memory.
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