Nine years ago it was news. Nine years from now it will be history. In schools today -- around the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon administration is somewhere in history classes, studied in "contemporary issues" seminars, and discussed in government classes as an example of presidential power, congressional investigations, or the adversarial press. It is even part of one school musical play.
But often Watergate is almost ignored.
"Like anything else, it fades after a while," said Seymour Stiss, social studies supervisor for Arlington County schools. "Many of the teachers used to do a great deal about Watergate, but they're doing less and less. Who knows? It might get to be a footnote."
"Some of the kids I am teaching today were just 5 years old when Nixon was in trouble," said Jay Bonstingl, a social studies teacher in Columbia, Md., who has written a new high school social science text. "For them Watergate perhaps is an antiquated reference even as much as for you and me it burns in the conscience.
"Morality in government seems to pale in significance to the issues that are in their own field of vision," Bonstingl continued. "The economy is the major thing now. Government corruption isn't."
In 17 U.S. history and government books used in Washington-area schools, the space devoted to Watergate ranges from brief references to a nine-page narrative, which is fairly extensive treatment for any topic in a high school text.
The shortest treatment -- four one-or two paragraph references -- is in the book that is probably the most widely used, Magruder's "American Government," which sells more than 100,000 copies a year across the country, according to its publisher, Allyn and Bacon. The book has been revised 61 times since it first appeared in 1917.
In an interview, its current author, William A. McClenaghan, a professor at Oregon State University, said he believes Watergate is "still very important in shaping the ongoing political climate." But he added: "I'm not sure my own view comes through all that clearly in the book.
"Watergate is not the only thing that happened in American politics," McClenaghan said, "I try to accommodate Watergate and everything else within the confines of space. . . . It's a very considerable problem."
Jim Thompson, a division director at Allyn and Bacon, said the book emphasizes the structure of American government, not its behavior, and makes a strong effort "not to be slanted at all."
On the other hand, "The National Experience," by a group of five historians, including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., is frankly interpretive. Its verdict on Watergate is concise: "Nixon's administration, for all its talk about law and order, was indeed the most corrupt in American hisotry."
Textbooks are still the focus of most high school courses, and what gets into the texts is probably the best way to know what schools are doing about Watergate, said Dan Roselle, the editor of Social Education magazine. But since most history books are chronological, Roselle said, Watergate usually comes near the back of the book, creating the practical problem that teaches might not get to it before summer vacation. To cope with this, the Montgomery County school system has a required 10th grade course called "Contemporary Issues" that deals only with events of the last 20 years. It includes a 95-page curriculum guide about Watergate.
At Sherwood High in upper Montgomery County, teacher Fred Lowenbach used the dry chronology in the guide as the starting point for his unit on Watergate. Then students drew lots to do research on 27 different figures in the case, from Nixon to reporter Carl Bernstein to Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon's personal secretary.
Striding around the classroom like a prosecutor with a large yellow pad, Lowenbach grilled students one day on what their particular figures did.
At one point he called out to the student portraying H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, "Did you know about the break-in?" "No," the student replied.
The cover-up? "Yes, I'm afriad."
At the Norwood School, a private elementary school in Bethesda with about 250 students, teacher Jean Lutterman is the composer and director of a musical play on U.S. history which includes a section about Watergate performed by fifth graders. "With historical perspective on our part," she says, "Watergate seems to merit much less attention than it used to. But it's significant. . . . The Saturday Night Massacre just isn't as much fund as it once was."
The play is part of a three-year project, financed by a $90,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to write historical musicals for schools.
The Watergate section uses a musical theme borrowed from Peter Sellers' "Pink Panther." Its protagonist is a double Inspector Clouseau -- two boys playing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters whose stories played an important role in unraveling the Watergate scandal.
At one point, Deep Throat, Woodward's still secret source, intones from behind a partition:
"Follow the money. That's the clue .
"It will lead you to the top. "
Eventually, after Nixon is forced to regign as president, the whole class sings in chorus:
"It works! It really works!
"Even when evil lurks .
"When men in high places try to administer
"A cover-up of something sinister.
"There really is a solution
"Because we uphold our Constitution !"
"For a lot of people Watergate is still a sensitive thing," Lutterman said, "so we thought the best way to treat it was through humor. We don't make any judgments. We don't say, 'This is bad. This is good.' We don't try to lead them one way or the other."
Nevertheless, many of the students involved have strong opinions.
"He [Nixon] was a faker," said March Coleman. "If we hadn't found out about that, he might still be president."
"I don't like Nixon," Johnny Schecter said. "Who does?"
At Yorktown Senior High School in Arlington, the discussion of Watergate is more sophisticated. But many of the points covered are the same, though the studends are much more cynical.
Teacher Florence Rosse uses Watergate as the focal point of a unit on presidential impeachment in a 12th grade government course.
The unit, conducted early last month, lasted for seven class days and included readings on the federal constitutional convention of 1787 and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 as well as material on the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment resolution against Nixon's in 1974.
Rosse questioned her students closely on whether the charges against Nixon amounted to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" required for impeachment by the Constitution. She also asked if the committee vote was partisan and what the lessons of Watergate might be.
"Nobody is above the law," Bill Adams answered quickly.
"Don't be too sure," John Berry interjected. "Anybody else would have gone to jail, but he [Nixon] got a pardon. And we're all still playing a man who screwed us."
"What does Watergate show about ethics and morality in government?" Rosse continued.
"There are none," replied Hilary Daniel. "Ask Rita Jenrette . . . .I expect government to be immoral. But as long as they cut my taxes and allow my to lead a safe, happy life I don't care.
At Hammond Junior High School in Alexandria, teacher Judy McConville said that before whe gets to the Watergate unit, most of her students don't know much about the affair, but still have a "strong negative reaction" to Nixon.
McConville said she tries to treat Watergate even-handedly. "I try to give some positive features of Nixon as well as negative ones," she said. "Sometimes I play devil's adocate. If they all lean one way then I ask questions to tug them the other way.I want them to separte fact form opinion."
In the book she uses, "American Political Behavior" by Howard D. Mehlinger and John J. Patrick, Watergate if treated in a six-page section on "The President and the Media." The text describes a love-hate relationship between the two: presidents court reporters for favorable publicity but try to ward off hostile stories; reporters seek access to presidents but often play up negative news.
"While the reporters need the president, they often don't want the kind of news that the president wants to hand out," the book says. "They need news that will sell papers and attract TV sponsors. And 'bad news' tends to be better than 'good news'. Reports on failure are more lively than those on success . . . Reporters want that part of political news which a president is most eager to hide from public view."
Mehlinger and Patrick say that while no president has been very happy with the media, "perhaps Richard Nixon suffered the most from this tension." Their text then recounts the Watergate story from the break-in was "merely one of many illegal acts that were conducted with the knowledge and support of key officials in the White House."
Besides crediting the press for what it described as an "all-out effort to uncover the facts," the book cites the White House tapes, U.S. Judge John Sirica and the Senate Watergate Committee for playing major roles in forcing Nixon's resignation.
The section stirred considerable debate in McConville's class.
"If the press had neglected it, then Nixon would have been able to cover it all up," said Marc Tillman, 13. "At first most everybody trusted him. The media changed all that. They kept digging and digging."
Another student, Melissa Bryon, interjected, "They [the press] wanted to get something against the president. They didn't have that many facts."
"They might have stretched it a little bit," said Jennifer Park, "and maybe the reporters didn't like him [Nixon]. But I think most of it is true."
Textbook author Mehlinger, who is a professor at Indiana University, said he deliberately was "a little bit cautious" in how he handled Nixon and Watergate. "We're still pretty close to it," he said. "Maybe things will look quite different in a few years."
"I didn't want to use the textbook to preach about presidential behavior and Nixon's behavior in particular," Mehlinger continued. "I'm sure individual teachers wil preach like made about it."
Shortly after Nixon left office, the National Education Association prepared three teaching kits on Watergate with booklets and cassette tapes aimed at elementary, junior high, and senior high classes. Despite extensive publicity, the organization has sold only 700 copies to its 1.7 million members. Sales have virtually stopped, said Linda Mitchell, of the NEA publications department, even though the kits are still offered in a catalog.
One of the teachers who helped prepare the kits, Theodore London of Lincoln Junior High in Washington, said the only things he has left about Watergate are a few yellowing charts. He said he hasn't used them this year. w
"The kids now just aren't very interested," London said. "You've got to do things that keep their attention. Their span of attention -- it's not long."