The lessons of Watergate

Every generation of Americans lives through a crisis - a war, a depression, an assassination, a terror attack.

The Watergate scandal that forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign 40 years ago this week defined the 1970s and consumed, it seemed, every aspect of our nation's culture.

Former Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Old Lyme, who served on the Senate Select Committee that investigated Mr. Nixon's role in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as the aftermath, eloquently describes how Watergate permanently altered citizens' views of government.

"When the hearings started, no American believed that a president could do wrong to the point of impeachment any more than he thought his congressman or his senator could do wrong. With Watergate that all ended. Everybody in elected office was open to scrutiny maybe to an excess. People question everything now. Everything becomes 'thisgate' and 'thatgate,' and of course none of them really relate in the same way in terms of seriousness to what happened at the Watergate. The American people have forgotten the lessons of Watergate. On the other hand, they have a general unease with all forms of government," he said.

An interview with Mr. Weicker by Lisa McGinley, The Day's deputy managing editor, published Sunday, reminds us of a painful time when the nation was torn politically - and yet we survived.

Immediately after Mr. Nixon resigned, Vice President Gerald Ford took the presidential oath and observed, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over... Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

It is especially reassuring to contrast President Ford's smooth transition with chaotic elections and bloody coups other countries often experience. This is perhaps Watergate's greatest legacy.

Mr. Weicker, now 83, points out that younger Americans must continue to learn from the Watergate scandal.

"The main lesson is: In the end we are all responsible for the government in Washington. ... If we involve ourselves, we're going to get good government and if we don't, things like Watergate occur. And they could occur tomorrow."

George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, expressed a similar sentiment more than a century ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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