Watergate scandal changed the political landscape forever

12:53 PM, Jun 16, 2012   |    comments
Richard Nixon. Photo courtesy: USA Today
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It began with tape on door latches.

It ended with the fall of a president and a scandal that echoes in American culture four decades later.

The time was just after 1 a.m. 40 years ago Sunday when a security guard at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., discovered adhesive tape covering the latches of several doors.

The guard called police. Five men were arrested for burglary and attempting to illegally wiretap the Democratic National Committee offices. The arrests proved to be the first in a series of scandals that led to the August 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Watergate, as the affair came to be known, dented Americans' faith in their government and tainted public servants with a distrust that stretches still from inside the Washington Beltway to town halls across the USA.

"It was a part of a one-two punch - the other being the loss of the Vietnam War- that delivered the current sense of cynicism about government," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who studies mass media. "When the smoke cleared in the Watergate scandal, we had been blatantly lied to by our highest officials. That changed us."

Former Rep. Neal Smith, a native of Hedrick, Iowa, served in Congress from 1959 to 1994, including the Watergate years. At the time, Smith - a Democrat - thought newspapers and TV networks sensationalized news reports of corruption in the Nixon administration.

In June 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon to release secret audio tape recordings he made in the Oval Office. Smith listened to the tapes for hours.

A week after the burglary, on June 23, 1972, Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman conspired to have the CIA ask the FBI to stop its investigation, falsely claiming the break-in was a national security operation.

"I really didn't believe it was as bad as was being reported," said Smith, now 92, retired and living in Des Moines, Iowa. "But I put on the earphones, and it was unbelievable what was being said by the president, the things he wanted to do."

After Watergate, people did not believe their public officials, Smith said. He believes many good potential leaders eschewed politics, not wanting to endure the indignities of campaigns and elections in the post-Watergate era.

Skepticism of the government is a long-held and necessary affliction of a democratic republic. However, a pervasive cynical attitude was part of a "radical change brought about by Nixon and Watergate," Smith said.

"Both parties have had trouble recruiting people, especially for federal offices," Smith said. "It's a shame."

At one time, "everybody believed what the government said," said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor.

"People disagreed over policy, but not over honesty," Goldford said. "The myth of the president as always a great, trustful, moral leader ended. You went from taking what a politician said with a grain of salt to a huge block of salt."

Goldford was a graduate student in Chicago during the Watergate scandal. He recalled returning home from classes to watch news reports.

"Every day was a new parade of horribles that had come in from the dark forest," the professor said.

Watergate also took root in popular culture. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote two best-selling accounts of Watergate, All the President's Men, which detailed the reporters' coverage of the story, and The Final Days, which detailed the last days of Nixon's administration.

All the President's Men became an Oscar-winning film in 1976 starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

"Watergate led to a romanticism of investigative reporting," Goldford said.

However, retired Drake University journalism professor Herb Strentz argues it is a myth that journalism schools saw a boom in enrollment buoyed by young would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins.

"Journalism schools did see enrollment go up, but all the students were in advertising and public relations," Strentz said. "They all wanted to be Haldeman and (Nixon special counsel John) Ehrlichman. They wanted to manipulate public opinion, not be reporters."

Also in popular culture, the suffix "gate" became attached to other scandals worldwide. Wikipedia lists more than 120 "-gate" scandals, from 1978's Billygate, when former President Jimmy Carter's brother, Billy Carter, represented the Libyan government as a foreign agent, to Bountygate, this year's NFL scandal involving defensive players being paid bonuses to hurt players on opposing teams.

Watergate manufactured positive legacies, too. The public and the news media more carefully scrutinized the backgrounds of people who sought power. The secrets of the Nixon administration drove a national movement to make government meetings and records more accessible to the public.

Three major federal open-records reforms passed after Watergate, including the Government in Sunshine Act in 1976, and the Ethics in Government and Presidential Records acts, both in 1978:

• The Sunshine Act required government agencies, with exceptions, to conduct all meetings open to the public.

• The Ethics in Government Act required public officials to disclose their financial and employment history and create restrictions on lobbying.

• The Presidential Records Act required preservation of all presidential records and documents.

States and the District of Columbia followed but with varying levels of transparency, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"There was, and still is, this belief among public officials that the public can't handle information," said Strentz, also the former executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

However, opening records and meetings is not enough to prevent or derail future Watergate-like events, he said.

"You have to get people involved," Strentz said. "They have to pay attention. They have to vote. That's how it works."

USA Today

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