In the DC area, Watergate is not taught explicitly, but teachers use the events surrounding the scandal to illustrate larger dynamics within a democracy.

A half-century ago Friday, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in DC’s Foggy Bottom led to an investigation that gripped the country for two years and led to the states’ only presidential resignation. -United. This week, OMCP’s Rick Massimo talks to experts about how the whole affair has affected American politics, history, and even language ever since.


As the scandal that gripped Washington and the country for nearly two years recedes half a century, what remains to be learned about Watergate? And what is there to get out of it?

In the DC area, Watergate is not taught explicitly—it is not mentioned in statewide curricula for DC, Maryland, or Virginia—but teachers use the events surrounding the scandal to illustrate a larger dynamic, such as the role of the free press, or details of the American system, such as the impeachment process.



Lynnette Russo, a teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Va., told OMCP’s Scott Gelman that she was presenting “All the President’s Men” at the end of the school year.

Russo said it gets students talking about the impeachment process and they’re interested in the details of what really happened in 1972. (You can read more about what Gelman discovered about Watergate in DC area schools in this week’s school zone. .)

Three scholars also spoke to OMCP about how Watergate fades into history, but at the same time continues to cast a shadow over American life.

lives, laws, language

Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at Columbia University and author of “Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past,” said people know Watergate matters, but they don’t. always why.

When researching his book in the early 1990s, Schudson said, “It was a memory that nobody really had any interest in preserving. And the truth is, most people didn’t understand what happened with Watergate. You know, it was something about a burglary.

That said, Schudson argues that the legacy of Watergate affects American life, law, and language.

“Every time someone who had the slightest thing to do with Watergate dies, it’s the head of the obituary,” Schudson said.

“Everything else they’ve done in their lives, good or bad, takes second place to ‘So-and-so was an aide to Richard Nixon in 1972’ or ‘Was one of the last people to talk to him in the office. oval in 1974.’ It leaves an extraordinary mark on people who got involved in one way or another.

Legally speaking, the scandal had an impact in areas such as the appointment of special prosecutors and the Freedom of Information Act, a tool journalists still use today.

And Watergate language is still pervasive: “Anything that aspires to be considered a serious scandal ends up as ‘Something-gate’, not just in the United States but around the world,” Schudson said – even in non-English languages. countries. “It’s a kind of permanence.”

The construction “What did (fill in the blank) know and when did he know it?” attributed to confidential source Deep Throat, but makes it an invention for the film version of “All the President’s Men”.

All that said, “Watergate seems pretty distant now,” Schudson said. It’s as far back in time as the Watergate-era Teapot Dome scandal, he added, and “I couldn’t tell you what the Teapot Dome was. It was a major 1920s White House scandal – Warren Harding, I believe? Members of his cabinet were involved in this, but I couldn’t tell you three full sentences.

conspiracy thinking

Ken Hughes, a researcher at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, was 8 years old in 1972. He began seriously studying Watergate in the 1990s and said, “I’m still learning new things about it.

After decades of studying the scandal and listening to the hundreds of hours of grating soundtracks recorded by Nixon in the Oval Office, Hughes said Watergate was more complex and simpler than most people realize, and that still resonates today.

“A lot of people assume that Nixon authorized the Watergate cover-up because he was involved in the Watergate break-in,” Hughes said. “I still haven’t seen solid evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it happened.”

The cover-up occurred because the Watergate burglars were a subset of Nixon’s “secret police unit” known as The Plumbers. If law enforcement found out about the plumbers, Hughes said, they would find out what else Nixon and his henchmen had been up to.

Hughes is the author of “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate”, the definitive documentation of Nixon’s plan to derail the Vietnam peace talks – at the cost of soldiers’ lives Americans – to help his 1968 candidacy.

While plumbers weren’t trained until after the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, “Nixon came into office with a crime he had to cover up,” Hughes said.

“Because if you didn’t hide it, if people learned that Nixon put his presidential campaign above the lives of American soldiers, above peace in the war which, at that time, most Americans concluded that was a mistake, so they would certainly turn against him.”

Like virtually all of the subjects interviewed for this week’s series of stories, Miller – unprompted – compared the Watergate scandal to the turmoil surrounding the hearings into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of the then President Donald Trump.

“When there’s interest in the subjects I’m studying,” Hughes said, “it means something is wrong. The subjects I study are dark and sometimes criminal.

One of the less explored parallels, Hughes said, concerns the support Nixon and Trump each had among Republicans. While Nixon’s conduct out of office is rightly seen as a bipartisan effort, Hughes said it was more complex than that.

“It wasn’t until the end of his presidency that there was a very strong majority for Nixon’s resignation,” Hughes said.

“But one interesting thing that is very much overlooked is the stamina of his support within the Republican base. … The reason Congressional Republicans withdrew their support for him in August 1974 was that their primaries were finally behind him” and they had to appeal to voters in the general election.

Elements of this dynamic persist, Hughes said, especially since Nixon was pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford, later in 1974: “Because he was pardoned, Nixon was able to spend the rest of his life to insist on his innocence, and that he was pushed around by liberal Democrats and the media and the prosecutors went on a rampage,” Hughes said.

(This view outlives Nixon: The e-mails responding to this week’s series, though few in number, unanimously support the view described by Hughes.)

This kind of conspiratorial thinking, Hughes added, “has metastasized into this larger movement that is conspiracy theory driven, eager to believe it is a victim of government persecution and eager to actually engage in the government persecution and using their conspiracy theories about their own victimization to victimize those they see as political threats.

Watergate Myths

W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor at American University and author of “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism,” said many of his students come to his classes after learning that Washington Post reporters , Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, had brought Nixon to the White House with their dogged reporting.

Campbell calls it “the heroic journalist myth,” and while he acknowledges that the duo have done important work and have themselves disavowed the myth, he still spends a lot of time busting it.

He says it’s because of Woodward and Bernstein’s book All the President’s Men, which by definition centered them in the story; the film version of the book, which was even more journalist-centric, and the “decades-long guessing game” as to the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s confidential source. (Former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt was revealed to be the source in 2005.)

“In Washington, the kingdom coin exposes secrets,” Campbell said. “And so a secret like this that had been around for over three decades was quite remarkable.” The three factors combine to create a myth that is “very appealing in that kind of sense. Easy to remember, easy to tell.

While Campbell “isn’t a big, big fan of the movie,” he said there are some helpful ways to use it in the classroom. “It is sometimes presented as a how-to manual – how to go about it, how to cultivate sources, how to be persistent, how to be imaginative in pursuing an important story. …I can see how it can be used imaginatively in high schools or colleges and universities.

He teaches the “myth of the heroic journalist” to encourage critical thinking: “Journalists who lack the ability to compel testimony, without the ability to issue subpoenas — is it really likely that they will be able to find what kind of information to sort out a presidency? And such questions, I think, get students to start thinking about the evidence.

Campbell also recalled a seminar at the University of Illinois in which two groups of students went through the book looking for clues to Deep Throat’s identity and came up with a guess.

In the end, “both [classes] were wrong,” Campbell said. “But it was an interesting way [to] encourage students to immerse themselves in a text and to really interrogate the text in detail. … It was an imaginative way to use the book.

These kinds of aids to teaching the subject become more and more necessary over the years and decades. Campbell spoke to WTOP in a Watergate webinar, “and there are a lot of memories going on. But that tends to be a senior person’s pursuit these days.