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.