Lessons From Watergate

Politicians today have something to learn from those who stood up against corruption and deception 40 years ago.

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Moderator Charlie Rose, left, listens as former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein, speak during an event sponsored by The Washington Post to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate Monday, June 11, 2012 at the Watergate office building in Washington.

This week the Washington Post had an event to commemorate Watergate after 40 years, on the 11th floor of the Watergate office complex. The sixth floor, where the actual break-in of the Democratic National Committee occurred, was vacant and contained paintings of the figures from that historic event.

I found myself wandering through those empty rooms, nearly alone, looking at that rogue's gallery. It was like being surrounded by ghosts from an era I am old enough to remember well.

It was quite an evening, featuring Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, John Dean, Bud Krogh, Sen. Bill Cohen (a freshman on the House Judiciary Committee in ‘74), Gov. Bill Weld (an officemate of Hillary Rodham on the Impeachment Committee), Sen. Fred Thompson, and Richard Ben-Veniste. Ben Bradlee, of course, was honored for having a spine of steel during that most trying time.

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What struck me most was that this was not so much about Watergate, a "third rate burglary" as Nixon's Press Secretary Ron Ziegler called it, but about power and wielding it with absolute abandon. 

That period of break-ins and dirty tricks and loyalty, not to the country or the Constitution, but to one man, as Bud Krogh put it, is far from a new story. Nor is it something that is entirely behind us. As Bill Cohen pointed out, our system of secret money in politics and unlimited and unbridled super PACs are corroding our system and have the real potential to further polarize and pollute democracy.

We forget now the wiretaps of the National Security Council staff, reporters, and enemies; we forget the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office or the suggested robbery and firebombing of the Brookings Institution; we forget the deep paranoia and efforts at illegal acts against political opponents. It was much more than the Watergate break-in or the cover up. It was a pattern, where no one close to Nixon stood up and said, enough, this must stop. The loyalty was to the president, not to the rule of law.

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It also struck me how far we have come in our politics—how winning is the end, not the means by which we operate. What does being in office represent if not to get things done, deliver for the people you represent, move the ball down the field? Is this all about ending up in an ideological straight jacket where we cannot escape to do the people's business? Is it right to so hate your opponents that you can't find a way to work together? Is it right that Washington's political paralysis is trickling down to local cities and towns where the Tea Party's incivility has made it impossible to govern?

We saw America at its best and at its worst during that Watergate period. Our press worked, our legal system worked, Congress worked. Sadly, we are now in a different era. When 70 percent of Americans believe that Congress has made our economic problems worse and their approval ratings are barely in double digits, we have reached a different kind of danger zone than 1974. Very little is working.

The lesson from Watergate came from those on that stage who stood up and told the truth, who bucked their party and their president because it was right, who listened and learned and worked their hearts out because they believed that honesty and integrity mattered. They were all young then, 40 long years ago, but they have lived their lives as examples of what is good and decent and honorable since. We owe them. God willing, there will be more like them.

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