Forty years after Watergate, a central question about the scarring chapter in U.S. history lingers: Did Richard M. Nixon’s misdeeds and downfall strip the nation of its innocence or affirm the resilience of the American system? ¶ In one vision, Watergate turned Americans into cynical people, mistrustful of government, ready to believe the worst of their leaders. Forty years after the botched burglary on Virginia Avenue NW, the squalor of Nixon’s presidency remains visible in our paralyzed, polarized politics, our alienation, our insistent disunity. ¶ Alternatively, Watergate shines as proof that the system works, that law and the Constitution prevail over the excesses of craven politicians. The details of the scandal, which resulted in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history, may fade with time, but Watergate lives on in the idealism of those who hold government to account — through grass-roots movements such as the tea party and Occupy Wall Street, investigative reporting, and public and private watchdog groups. ¶ The principal figures in the Nixon presidency and the two-year drive to reveal its misdeeds are mostly elderly men now, and the scandal that riveted the nation like no other is barely mentioned in most high school American history courses.
But in politics, popular culture, the news media and the perception of the United States at home and abroad, Watergate was a watershed, the beginning of an era of inspection, the end of a more deferential culture, a turning point with as powerful an impact as the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement.
Hear from some of the key players who covered and investigated the scandal that rocked a country and derailed the Nixon presidency. Listen to Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tom Brokaw and William Cohen tell their stories on Watergate and the lasting effects on the country.
Watergate: 40 years later
Watergate’s legacy is endangered in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States.
VIDEO | In a question-and-answer session with AP editors on Nov. 17, 1973, President Nixon declared "I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."
FULL COVERAGE | View four decades worth of Washington Post stories and multimedia on the scandal and its legacy.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” the new president, Gerald R. Ford, told the American people in his first address after Nixon resigned in August 1974. “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
That notion of Watergate governed for many years; in 1974, Americans elected to Congress a huge class of idealists bent on reforming the nation’s institutions and wresting power from the few. Reporters became unlikely heroes, portrayed by Hollywood and best-selling books as so many Davids taking on dubious Goliaths of politics and business. Whistleblowers — once derided as disloyal snitches — became a protected class, celebrated in pop culture and defended by new laws.
As the years slip by, the Watergate story — the complicated but dramatic tale of a criminal conspiracy to cover up misdeeds by a president and his top advisers — drifts toward myth, losing some of its nuance. Fact and fiction blur. Hollywood’s rendition takes up more bandwidth than the original investigative journalism.
The 1976 movie version of “All the President’s Men” — the film about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that inspired a generation of journalism school students — made it into the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movies of all time and remains a well-rented classic. Only a couple of decades after the scandal, an academic study on Americans’ collective memory concluded that “the only vivid personal memory of Watergate was the feature film ‘All the President’s Men.’ ”