At the urging of daughters and a few friends, I’m looking back 40 years to the historic night of Aug. 8, 1974, in Washington. The world wondered that evening if American democracy would collapse, if there would be a military coup; and, in following years, we’ve pondered if anything was learned from the entire Watergate experience.
This is “ancient” history for half of you. The median age in America was 36.8 years in the 2010 Census and 37.7 years in Minnesota. What, then, is the relevance of Watergate and the Nixon presidency in these times?
Recognizing this demographic disconnect, the short answer to the questions posed above would be: Burn the evidence. Don’t tape for posterity any conversations you don’t want people to hear later. Beyond that, corrective measures taken after Watergate have mostly been forgotten, repealed or circumvented.
Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon announced he was resigning from office and would leave the next day. Even before Facebook, Twitter and modern forms of social media that had no journalistic filtering and editing mechanisms, rumors were widespread something might happen, including a military intervention.
As a just-in-case precaution, colleague Al Eisele and I were assigned to keep the Washington bureau open for the Ridder Publications newspapers until our Midwestern deadlines approached and someone gave us an “all clear” sign to close up shop.
Thousands in Lafayette Square
We walked past the White House where thousands of people gathered in Lafayette Square directly across the street to the north of the White House. It was a frightening scene. It wouldn’t have taken much for some incident to occur. To our amazement, the evening passed without anyone attempting to “storm the Bastille.” No one was injured, and the president departed the next day.
To cap an exhausting day, Eisele and I walked to Le Petit, a French bistro in the Georgetown neighborhood then famous for its signature filet mignon plus a daily vegetarian dish. My colleague began talking to acquaintances at a table next to us while I, illogically, sat studying the two-item menu.
When reality set in — I knew what meal I came to get — I finally noticed Eisele was talking with Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron. Even most readers under the median age in Minnesota should recognize those names.
Ten years from now, Minnesota media will likely look at all the Minnesota ties to the Watergate scandal that included fundraising for the Watergate “burglars” on up to the important role two Minnesotans played on the Supreme Court — Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun.
Congress worked the way it was supposed to
What people should remember now, however, was that the federal government worked the way it was supposed to. While an orderly transition of power occurred in the executive branch, Congress, with bipartisan support, had an incredibly successful 93rd session (1973-1974) even as Watergate investigations and impeachment proceedings were playing out.
Congress no longer works the way it is supposed to. Josh Tauberer, in his GovTrack.us blog, noted as of June 30 — three-fourths of the way into the 113th Congress — only 125 bills were enacted by the dysfunctional Congress. That included only 73 bills in 2013.
For comparison, 406 laws were enacted in the 93rd Congress of 1973-1974 that is mostly remembered as the Watergate era. It wasn’t just housekeeping legislation back then. Major expansions of the Endangered Species Act were passed and signed into law by Nixon. President Gerald Ford signed into law major trade negotiating authority (the Trade Act of 1974) that was shaped during the Nixon presidency after Asian exporting countries effectively ended television and electronic device manufacturing in the U.S. through predatory dumping.
We had eight problem-solvers representing Minnesota in the House of Representatives in the 93rd Congress, four from both major parties. We still have problem-solvers representing us today, along with at least one problem maker and a couple of problem enablers who mostly just go along for the ride.
How has the nation changed since Watergate?
The University of Houston takes a good look at that in its “Restraining the Imperial Presidency” article on its Digital History site, concluding successes and failures for the public at large. “Some of the post-Watergate reforms have not been as effective as reformers anticipated,” it observes with understatement.
Brooklyn College, meanwhile, has a good review of legislation adopted in the wake of Watergate that continues to this day. But some of the campaign funding disclosure, ethics-in-government and intelligence-gathering constraints have been weakened by amendments, by practice and by court decisions in the years since.
A particularly good synopsis of highly functional Congresses’ role in cleaning up after Watergate is available on the U.S. Senate’s history site. It, too, summarizes post-Watergate legislative actions from 1974 through 1978 and rightly concluded:
“The Senate Watergate investigation remains one of the most significant congressional inquiries in U.S. history. Over the course of this 16-month investigation committee members maintained bipartisan accord, garnered public support, and expanded congressional investigatory powers to produce lasting legislative reform.”
Alas, we are forgetting lessons learned from Watergate. It is far easier to remember what was included on Le Petit’s little menu.
Lee Egerstrom is an Economic Development Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul; this commentary originally appeared on its website. Egerstrom worked for 36 years as a business journalist and as a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and its former parent company, Knight Ridder Newspapers.
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