Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.
The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.
But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”
Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.
Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.
Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.
Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.