Fifty years ago, Watergate broke, Richard Nixon got implicated, America saw a president resign. The Watergate trial judge who prompted these events with probing questions was Republican John Sirica. As a kid in my early teens, I was absorbed – with my country in crisis. Even now, those days cast shadows.
As a young person and political junkie, first impressions of Nixon were good. He had been Eisenhower’s vice president, beat Johnson who let Vietnam drag on, ended that war, opened China, was a diehard anti-Soviet, smart, irreverent, not very photogenic, but seemed to know the process.
Then came Watergate, and new facts poured out. Nixon’s faults included initiating bad events, but worse, covering them up, lack of judgment, weakness, thinking loyalty trumped integrity, which it never does. In the end, he set the traps for himself, and stepped in them.
Details blur, but in that time, I listened to the radio (no internet or non-stop cable), read every book written about the event, taped the hearings, thought the world was coming to an end – that we had just averted democratic government’s Armageddon. Growing up calm in America, this was unsettling.
Of course, I was not a lawyer, did not work in Congress, federal court, White House, or any part of government. I had never written for a paper. It just all sounded terribly serious, drama drove interest.
Then one day, thirty years ago, a funny thing happened. I was working in DC, and walked into a secondhand bookstore, where a pile of papers stood in the front area. They were the private papers of Judge Sirica, who had driven the entire Watergate process. He had just died.
On a whim, with time to burn, the owner let me go through them. For a pittance, I ended up buying his personal diaries of the Watergate trial, three books. I read and read them, and eventually they found their way from my hands into the possession of a major public library, where they are today.
However, they taught me several things. First, keeping notes on big events is important – in all lives, not least for the nation, if ever you find yourself in such a spot. Second, the federal bench at its best is wholly independent of politics – Sirica, a lifetime Republican, was. That mattered.
Finally, life is filled with irony: A young man interviewed to clerk for Sirica, but Sirica did not select him. His name was John Dean. He went to work for the Nixon White House, eventually brought it down – and put dozens in front of Judge Sirica, by chance.
Sirica wrote a book called “For the Record,” Dean one called “Blind Ambition,” and they too teach extraordinary lessons, as do Nixon’s later books, from “RN” and “The Real War” to “Leaders,” “No More Vietnams,” “Real Peace,” and “Seize the Moment.” His first was “Six Crisis.” Writing matters.
Years swept past, and one day – not so many years ago, after becoming a lawyer, clerking for a federal court, working in Congress, two White Houses, I accidentally bumped into John Dean. He knew nothing of the Sirica diaries, and so – before they ended up at the public library – I let him read them.
He was amused, and I am sure he found things in them that I did not, that I knew nothing about, and perhaps got the old judge’s perspective from his handwritten words. But the whole Watergate event today – at least to me – means what it may not to others.
These days, I am inclined to think we have too many crises, that Watergate – for all its significance – set in motion a feeding frenzy in the press, initiated disrespect for office, institutions, even the proper role of the press.
These days, uttering the name Watergate seems to lionize the press, as every “Tom, Dick, and Harry” – and “Sally” – wants to be a hard-bitten investigative reporter, to bring down the next Republican president, and glad for it. There is a cheapness to modern reporting, fact gathering, which somehow did not exist prior to Watergate, does not – at times – seem to properly honor the First Amendment.
Cheaper too is the idea of congressional inquiry, real and honest investigation, seeking truth not glamor or gain, thinking about the country not television, tweets, and your name. Watergate changed all that. Crisis and impeachment, inflaming public passion, delivering shock, even at cost to the Republic is it.
So, what did Watergate really do? Yes, it offered a kind of overdue commitment to accountability for those in public office, something that ironically seems lost again. It lionized those who criticize, even tear apart “the man in the arena,” or woman. It caused us to question those who – for a time – sit in seat of power, populating timeless constitutional institutions. But it also may have damaged those institutions, including integrity within the press and Congress. Just a thought on the 50th anniversary of this event.
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