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Wayne Post
  • Michael Winship: Watergate’s lessons, washed away

  • The Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable.

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  • At moments, The Lessons of Watergate conference, held a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C., by the citizen’s lobby Common Cause, was a little like that two-man roadshow retired baseball players Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson have been touring. In it, they retell the story of the catastrophic moment during the bottom of the last inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the Mets’ Wilson hit an easy ground ball toward Buckner of the Red Sox, who haplessly let it roll between his legs. That notorious error ultimately cost Boston the championship.
    As The New Yorker magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman wrote of the players’ joint public appearance, “It is as if Custer and Sitting Bull agreed to deconstruct Little Bighorn.” Or those World War II reunions where aging Army Air Corps men meet the Luftwaffe pilots who tried to shoot them down over Bremen.
    So, too, in Washington, four decades after the Watergate break-in scandal that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Up on stage was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, one of the first victims of Nixon’s infamous “plumbers,” the burglars who went skulking into the night to attempt illegal break-ins – including one at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
    “I want to add something to the history here that I’ve never told,” Ellsberg said, then asked. “Is Alex Butterfield still alive?”
    A voice shouted from a corner of the room, “I’m over here.”
    And sure enough, it was Alexander Butterfield, former deputy to Nixon chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and a pivotal if accidental notable in the Watergate saga. In July 1973, Butterfield let slip to the Senate Watergate committee that Nixon made secret audiotapes of all his meetings at the White House, a revelation that cracked the scandal wide open.
    Watergate was a true constitutional crisis. The abuse of presidential power was staggering, from the soliciting of illegal corporate campaign contributions used for hush money and delivered by bagmen to the illicit actions of the aforementioned plumbers — an operation, by the way, that traced its roots all the way back to the early months of Nixon’s first term. Combined with the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam — including the secret bombing of Cambodia and the violent squelching of antiwar protests — Watergate shook the public’s confidence in government as it hadn’t been since the bleakest days of secession and the Civil War.
    But as several participants at the conference noted, the nation and its institutions did something about it. Committees in both the Senate and House, members of both parties cooperating with one another (!), conducted thorough investigations. In a more competitive, less consolidated news environment, a free press went on the attack.
    And the courts worked. People went to jail, lots of them — even the former attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell. Think about that. Today, we couldn’t even get miscreant bankers to resign in exchange for their billions in bailouts, much less prosecute them for criminal behavior.
    Page 2 of 2 - But the Lessons of Watergate are lessons learned and lost. We’ve got to organize, get our government back and make it accountable. Many believe it will take another scandal the size of Watergate, or worse, to get us back on track. Let’s hope not. Instead, four decades in the future, let there be changes for the good America can celebrate, so we don’t wind up like those old ballplayers on the road, reliving an unforced error, again and again.
    Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua and senior writing fellow at the pubic policy and advocacy group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. For more information, go to www.BillMoyers.com
     
     

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