Forty years ago today, I was on vacation in North Carolina, far removed from my subscription to the Washington Post, where I had followed faithfully the reporting about President Nixon's "second-rate burglary."
Instead of being among the throngs who waited outside the White House or who went about their business in the nation's capital while a president resigned for the first time in American history, I sat on the floor of my father-in-law's house and watched Richard Nixon announce that he would resign. I would have preferred being in Washington, reading in minute detail the Washington Post's reporting and hearing the talk of Washingtonians all around me.
As mesmerized as I was by the Watergate scandal and the persistent, detailed reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I did not despise Nixon, as so many of my generation did. I recognized his political skills and even admired the boldness of his foreign policy. But by 1974, after two years of watching the administration crumble under the weight of its own paranoia, deceit and disdain for the law and the Constitution, I was contemptuous of Nixon, who thought he was invulnerable after his 1972 landslide.
As I watched his speech on television, as he spoke of sacrifice and family and his own betrayal of American principles, I felt sorry for the man. I remarked that if he had given that speech two years earlier, at the beginning of the scandal, he might have avoided impeachment.
When Nixon flew off from the White House lawn, days before I returned to my job in Washington and my apartment in the suburbs, I felt a sense of relief that the nightmare was over. Gerald Ford, whom few (including Nixon) ever considered presidential material, turned out to be a reassuring father figure when America needed one. At Jimmy Carter's inauguration, after Ford's crushing and narrow defeat, the new president graciously acknowledged Ford's "healing" of America.
Forty years after Watergate, lesser scandals seem larger, public scorn of elected officials is more widespread and political anger is never-ending. Many pundits in 1974 celebrated by saying "the system worked" — Nixon resigned because the news media performed its watchdog role, the Senate was ready to remove him from office, and a new president took office without a military coup or an insurrection. But the legacy of Watergate is a different outlook from the American public. Politics is seen not as a means of running a democracy but as a slimey, crooked business. The news media, certainly one of the heroes of Watergate, suffer from a distrust almost as deep as the public's scorn for politicians.
Watergate is history, as distant in the past as Spanish Civil War had been when I was a young man in Washington. Like war, its impact lingers long after the big guns have been silenced.