If the scandals — real or imagined — this week have done nothing else, they’ve properly set up the summer of 2013 as a time to observe the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings.
The first hearings of the scandal began 40 years ago today:
“This is far worse than Watergate,” Rep. Michele Bachmann declared this week, referring to the IRS focus on Tea Party groups. We can’t possibly know that because we don’t know enough about the IRS story yet.
But her hyperbole mirrors that of Democrats around this time 41 years ago. They were trying to get the country to pay attention to a political break-in and the steady drip of information that increasingly reflected a presidential cover-up, and the country wasn’t at all interested because it was easy — far too easy — to dismiss the assertions as the work of partisan politicians and a liberal media.
“Back then, investigations followed facts. Today partisanship leads to distortion of facts to suit theory,” a follower on Twitter commented this week when I noted the seizure of reporter phone records had the faint aroma of the Nixon administration.
He had part of it right — the current part, but the assertion that Watergate lacked the politics of today’s scandals reinforces that younger people really don’t know much about either Watergate or the Nixon administration. And so when Rep. Bachmann declares the current situation worse than Watergate, it probably doesn’t matter much to many Americans except those who remember Watergate and understand that the current scandal in its current form is nowhere close.
All of which is a lengthy lead-in to pointing out that PBS NewsHour is in the process of putting together a terrific site about the anniversary of the Watergate hearings, starting with a series of poignant remembrances from viewers about how the nation was captivated by the hearings.
Consider this one, for example:
The Watergate hearings made a lasting impression on me. I clearly remember and think of it often to this day, how I sat indoors most of the summer and listened to these hearing unfold. I was fascinated. I was 13 years old and glued to the television. I think now what a weird kid I must have been. But it had a lasting impression on me. I understood only part of it I am sure. The phrase ‘to the best of my recollection’ vibrates in my head still when I think of the hearings. John Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, John Dean’s wife with the tightly coiffed blonde hair…these are all images that remain with me. I don’t really recall what my impression was in terms of government, morality and the media. I do think though that these televised hearings enabled the viewer to watch government unfold as it were and it seemed and seems to me to be a valuable public service – one of the few good reasons for television to exist. Now, I want the summer of ’73 back – to have the fun I was supposed to be having!
And this one…
So many moments in our collective history have been described as “when we lost our innocence,” but in the case of Watergate, that really was the case. How could anyone emerge from it unchanged? For me, I learned to be wary, if not suspicious of government. If something they do doesn’t seem right, it’s our duty to speak up. I also learned that the media, when it really wants to, and when it’s allowed to, can change history. What would have happened to us as a nation had certain media outlets, particularly The Washington Post and CBS, not focused on this story and seen it to its conclusion? Few people believed them at first. Few people thought a president and his administration could be so venal. It was a major revelation to find out that was the case, and I’m so glad some determined media outlets saw it through when the pressure to back off was immense.
It obviously made us more cynical, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of us were naïve before, and this is just the opposite extreme. But sometimes the most patriotic thing an American can do is to keep asking questions. It happened once. It can happen again, if we’re foolish enough to permit it.
Although the hearings started 40 years ago today in the Senate, it would be another year before it completed its work, and then the House Judiciary Committee did something even more remarkable in congressional history — its job. Six of 17 Republicans on the committee sided with Democrats in impeaching a Republican president.
An engaged public? A savvy media? A Congress rising to the occasion? Setting aside the facts of Watergate, these were some of the most remarkable aspects of the scandal, which the present scandals are not likely to duplicate to any degree.