As years go by, Watergate drifts toward myth

June 14, 2012

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.

“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.’ ”

Yet in subjects as disparate as campaign financing, media responsibility and corporate ethics, Watergate is still regularly summoned as an explanation for today’s troubles.

“Watergate was the onset of the change in relationships between Republicans and Democrats,” says Tom Railsback, 80, a Republican congressman from Illinois from 1967 to 1983 and a member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Nixon. “It made the American people very cynical about government and created a real mistrust between the parties. Before Watergate, Republicans and Democrats traveled together, our families were friends, and we would seldom report out legislation that didn’t have support from members in both parties.”

Balderdash, says Elizabeth Holtzman, a Democrat from New York who served on Judiciary with Railsback and was in the House from 1973 to 1981. “I know it sounds corny,” she says, “but the members of the Judiciary Committee put country above party and above their personal reelection chances to act together against criminal acts by the president. It’s ludicrous to argue that the ability of Republicans and Democrats to act together then created a schism between the parties.”

Watergate, according to Holtzman, 70, was ultimately a triumph for American voters, who realized their error in reelecting Nixon in a landslide victory in 1972 and just a year later supported Congress, the courts and the press in “an affirmation of our system of checks and balances, working together in a historic high point in our relationship with our government.”

Watergate, like so many signal moments in history, morphs over time, its meaning evolving with shifting ideologies, emerging technologies and new waves of scandal.

A tough sell

From the movies to novels, children’s books to pop hits, Watergate is ever with us, a wound that leaves a tender scar.

Watergate is Sheryl Longin’s first political memory. She remembers her family watching the hearings on TV, “seeing my parents so upset and shocked that the president lied,” she says. “It was the first thing I learned about the president, that he lies. It stuck with me. For my generation, it wasn’t like we were disillusioned — we just assumed a certain level of sleaziness.”

By the mid-1990s, Longin was a screenwriter in Hollywood with an idea about a Watergate spoof in which The Post’s inside source on the scandal, code-named Deep Throat, turns out to be two teenage girls. When Longin and director Andrew Fleming pitched their concept to studio executives, the suits worried that the public’s knowledge of Watergate had grown so thin that the movie — 1999’s “Dick” — would flop.

“Does it have to be about Nixon?” they asked.

It did, the writers insisted. And the movie worked: Even those who didn’t get its inside jokes identified with its core cynicism.

Today, “Dick” would be a total nonstarter, Longin says — public knowledge of Watergate is so marginal that no one would take a risk on such a movie.

John Simmons, creator of the Washington Scandal Tour for the comedy troupe Gross National Product, is trying to keep the memory alive.

“Even though Watergate is fading as history, it’s the most important scandal because it’s about real issues of power, not silly sex stuff like Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner or Gary Hart,” said Simmons, who leads bus trips through the District showing tourists sites made prominent by public wrongdoing.

Truth be told, his customers want the recent stuff — they want to see where Monica Lewinsky lived, where the Secret Service agents party. “We get birthers who want to hear about the Obama scandals,” the tour guide said.

Simmons, 56, keeps Watergate at the core of the tour. “I still make everyone do the Nixon victory salute, and we still think of Nixon as comedy gold,” he says. “But really, he’s more popular than Congress is today. To us, he was super right wing and a little strange, but to young people, he’s the guy who created the EPA and went to China.”

The primacy of pop culture has nudged Watergate’s meaning in a less serious direction, historians say, even in how the scandal’s name is used. The word sleuths at the Oxford English Dictionary found other scandals adopting the “-gate” suffix just two months after the burglary, setting a pattern that has lasted from Billygate, the 1980 brouhaha over the behavior of President Jimmy Carter’s untamed brother, to Climategate, the 2009 controversy over whether British climate scientists had cooked the books in a study on global warming.

By the time Nipplegate — Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2004 — came along, the “-gate” moniker had become an ironic touch, a way to indicate that a controversy was not exactly weighty.

Watergate remains a serious academic topic; many state curricula require social studies teachers to present the scandal as a lesson on the division of powers among the three branches of government. But what the curricula say isn’t always what happens in class.

“On a practical level, Watergate has really receded as a topic that people teach,” says Steve Armstrong, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies and supervisor of social studies for the West Hartford, Conn., school system. “I’m 59, so Watergate is huge to me, but anything that old is ancient history for young people. For many young teachers, Watergate is just one event among many of this nature.”

Young teachers also present students with a more charitable view of Nixon, he says, giving Nixon’s overtures to communist China and the Soviet Union at least equal time against Watergate.

The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky sex scandal get more classroom time than Nixon. “They go with the stuff they know they can get the kids interested in,” Armstrong says. “The attitude is, ‘Yeah, yeah, Nixon got caught, but what president doesn’t do something like that?’ ”

At 38, Stephen Masyada didn’t live through the scandal, but he thinks it contains essential lessons. So Masyada, who has taught social studies in Florida and North Carolina, tries to squeeze in at least some discussion of Watergate in the final two weeks of a U.S. history course.

He challenges students to discuss whether Nixon, whose positions on affirmative action and the environment would put him on the left side of the political ledger today, could be elected as a Republican now.

But Watergate is a tough sell, Masyada says. “It’s disappointing, but the kids just aren’t shocked by Watergate. They expect the president to do something wrong.”

Culture change

Whether the news media merely reflected that dark view of politicians or encouraged its spread, Watergate dramatically altered the relationship between those in power and those who report on them.

As the congressional investigation into impeaching Nixon gathered steam in 1973, Railsback, the Illinois congressman, headed home for Christmas recess. He was startled to find he was not alone. Everywhere he went — his daughter’s elementary school, a high school basketball game — there were his new shadows, Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Ike Pappas of CBS.

“It was a startling new experience,” Railsback says. “Members of the House were not subject to much media scrutiny back then. All of a sudden, we were center stage.”

Four decades later, Washington’s self-image as a place where voters send representatives to work in relative obscurity, devising federal policy, is shattered. Some politicians say the paralysis that infects the capital stems from forces unleashed by the scandal — interest groups intent on countering government power, as well as a press that discovered reader interest and profit in more aggressive coverage.

“The culture of Washington changed in response to Watergate, with a huge shift in journalism toward questioning authority,” says David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University, a former research assistant to Woodward and author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” “That led to the investigative work of the new muckrakers, but also to a gotcha journalism, with a lot of noise and heat over unimportant stories, and both forms changed the political culture.”

Almost immediately after Watergate, young people, inspired by the central role that Woodward and Bernstein played in unraveling the Watergate conspiracy, flocked to journalism schools. And despite recent waves of cost-cutting in print and broadcast news organizations, enrollment in undergraduate journalism programs nationwide has jumped by 35 percent over the past decade. Watergate remains a touchstone for budding journalists eager to demonstrate that right can tame might.

“It’s definitely still part of the lore and a serious driving force,” says Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization created in the aftermath of Watergate to support the expensive work of keeping government accountable.

(Watergate made accountability reporting both easier and harder — easier because sunshine and freedom of information laws were passed, opening up government records, and harder because people in power grew more wary and savvy about record-keeping. No president since Nixon has made systematic voice recordings of White House meetings, and even note-taking is more circumscribed, although the rise of e-mail and social media are changing the nature of record-keeping.)

Despite decades of decreasing respect for journalists in public opinion polling and popular culture — reporters have morphed from hunky heroes to scurrilous saps in most movie and TV depictions — Horvit sees some news organizations reinvesting in investigative work to regain relevance in an era of cuts, closings and collapsing business models.

“People say they don’t trust the media, but when a big investigative project gets done, everybody wants to read it and things happen — people get fired, change happens and people eat it up,” he says.

Solidifying the narrative

Even now, the flow of books and papers about Watergate continues unabated, as historians, partisans and novelists try to make sense of what happened. But as Thomas Mallon, a Washington author who has written novels about the John F. Kennedy assassination and Watergate, notes, the Kennedy story has always centered on what happened — did the assassin act alone? — whereas most Watergate revisionism focuses more on why: Why did the president and his staff, coasting toward easy reelection, commence a campaign of dirty tricks?

“Woodward always says that the essential story of Watergate is the one we know and believe, and he is right,” says Mallon, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives across from the iconic complex (he always knew he’d eventually write a Watergate book).

Mallon contends that Watergate was really about Vietnam — the deeply unpopular living-room war that turned the White House into a fortress, arming itself against a public that increasingly rejected the president as arbiter of whether the conflict in Southeast Asia was justifiable.

If Watergate has been diminished by time, that’s just how history works, often becoming kinder to bad guys as years go by. In Mallon’s “Watergate,” Nixon emerges as a more nuanced figure than the easily-spoofed figure of most early books about the era.

“The Nixon in my book is still guilty of many things,” says Mallon, who was in college during Watergate. “But he’s in over his head. He’s confused.”

The abundant White House tapes have so solidified the Watergate narrative that those writing about the era sometimes struggle to find something new. In a biography of former Post editor Ben Bradlee, “Yours in Truth,” published this spring, Jeff Himmelman, a former research assistant to Woodward, quotes from an unpublished interview in which Bradlee said he had “a residual fear” about a few details Woodward and Bernstein included in “All the President’s Men,” such as the flag Woodward used on his balcony to signal Deep Throat, his FBI source.

When New York magazine published an excerpt from the book focusing on Bradlee’s doubts, Himmelman got a shot of publicity. Was there a hole in the received version of Watergate?

No, says Himmelman. “None of this upsets the narrative of Watergate,” he says in a long interview in which he tears up three times over the prospect that he may have permanently damaged his relationships with Bradlee and Woodward. He says Bradlee never questioned The Post’s reporting but rather was “just being skeptical, like any editor should be.”

Then what is the meaning of the passage about Bradlee’s doubts? “I thought it was interesting,” Himmelman says. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” The author says the stir over the “residual doubts” line is a result of the magazine’s excerpting: “The dangerous thing about an excerpt is they take the gossipiest, sexiest part of your book. I did not intend any implication that it’s about anything larger. It’s hard for me to imagine the legacy of Watergate changing much.”

Books such as Himmelman’s attract buzz because of the dramatic power of story of Watergate, says Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman of National Public Radio and author of a book about Woodward and Bernstein. But she is certain that “Nothing is going to tarnish Ben Bradlee’s legacy. Nothing that’s come out in the last 40 years has dramatically altered the story of Watergate.”

With the anniversary this week, Woodward, whose reporting has focused mainly on presidential power and warfare in recent years, has been listening again to the Nixon tapes. “Revisionism is inevitable,” Woodward says, “and it should be part of the process. However, every season, there’s a new batch of Nixon tapes that once again establishes his criminality, his regular abuse of power and the nature of his personality.”

Anniversary to remember

The 40th anniversary is likely the last important one in Watergate’s history, Mallon says. By the 50th, fewer important figures from the scandal will be around to debate the meaning of the events or to recall with vivid detail the sense in 1973 that the country was in danger of collapsing under the scandal.

Mallon remembers that burden of living every day with a slow-moving but devastating crisis. And he recalls the invigorating end to the scandal: “People talk of Watergate as a moment when America lost its innocence, and there’s probably something to that. But the entire thing happened without a soldier in the street, without a gun being fired. It showed the sophistication of American law and life.”

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