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Reverence for presidents is gone


Thirty years ago this week, five men were arrested in the wee hours of the morning milling around the sixth floor of the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. in what authorities described the next day as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

Little did anyone know at the time that the foiled break-in at the Watergate hotel would lead to the downfall of a president, convictions of 30 of his advisors and staff members, and a change in the national attitude toward its elected leaders.

Plain-clothes officers of the Washington Police Department walked in on the five men at 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1972. Two ceiling panels in the office of the secretary of the Democratic Party had been removed. Her office was adjacent to the office of Democratic National Chairman Lawrence F. O'Brien, and it was believed that the men were in the process of installing bugging devices which would have picked up conversations and phone calls in O’Brien’s office. Much later, it was learned that they were there to repair and replace some bugs they had already installed in a previous break-in.

With four of the five burglars being residents of Miami, Fla., rather than Washington, and the fifth being a former CIA employee, the red flags went up immediately that there was something terribly amiss. Two of the Washington Post reporters who covered the story of the five men being arrested -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- followed their instincts and soon began to uncover a paper and money trail that connected the Watergate burglars with President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee.

Nixon’s fate was sealed when the Senate convened public hearings on the Watergate matter during which it was revealed that the president had installed a sophisticated tape recording system in the Oval Office which recorded every conversation held there. Nixon and his aides sparred with the Senate committee and the independent Watergate prosecutor over whether he had to surrender the tapes. In a scenario similar to Bill Clinton’s denials and eventual grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Nixon kept bobbing and weaving in an attempt to avoid the knockout punch the prosecutor was trying to deliver.

Eventually, with the country in turmoil and Nixon ready to be served with articles of impeachment -- meaning that he could have been put on trial by the Senate -- he finally resigned on August 8, 1974, more than two years after the break-in that was the actual beginning of the end.

Three decades later, some aspects of the case remain shrouded in mystery -- in particular, the identity of the infamous anonymous source used by Woodward known as “Deep Throat.” Woodward, keeping his promise not to divulge his source’s identity, has said he won’t do so until after the person dies.

The “Deep Throat” nickname was given by a Washington Post editor, referring to the title of a porn movie which was rather famous at the time, and it stuck. It was information from this source who had knowledge of the goings-on inside the Nixon White House that allowed Woodward and Bernstein to know where to look, and for what.

Nixon was popular enough to have won re-election by landslide in 1972, so he wasn’t in real political trouble. He didn't need to dig up any dirt on the Democrats, but he didn't realize that. He was insecure enough to think he had to eliminate any shred of hope the Democrats would have. Nixon certainly would have won without the political “dirty tricks” which were perpetrated on his behalf. The whole sequence of events was a great American tragedy.

Its most lasting effect is the changed way we look at our elected leaders. Most Americans, prior to Watergate, viewed their president with reverence. It was all right to question presidential policies and decisions, but it was certainly done with respect (with the possible exception of Vietnam war era protests). The media, in particular, is now much more aggressive in its questioning of our presidents and attempting to uncover all possible pertinent information about them, including personal. As a result, presidents now keep their distance from the media in every way imaginable. All public appearances and speeches are painstakingly choreographed by handlers who seek to keep unexpected questions at an absolute minimum. And that has only deepened the mistrust and even disrespect between media and politicians.

But those two are inexorably tied. Politicians must have access to the media to be successful, so it’s very much a love-hate relationship. Presidents used to be our version of royalty. Now they’re viewed by most people as necessary evils who serve in spite of their many taints.

It’s unlikely that will change anytime soon, if ever, and that is the permanent legacy of what happened 30 years ago this week.

This column was written June 16, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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