Watergate: The Real Legacy

Despite the fact that literally millions of folks are clamoring to get into the Land of Milk and Money, for the most part, the American timeline is seen as a series of bloodthirsty conflicts, driven in part by a predilection for gunslinger economics.  This is all in the abstract, of course, since most of the world’s knowledge of America is produced in Hollywood and consists of shootouts, car chases and ancient reruns of Baywatch.  The fact is, however, that since its inception, the twists of America history have had an influence far beyond its shores.  They run all the way from a bunch of Virginia farmers inventing a workable democracy in the 18th century to the boys from Compton and East Harlem reinventing music in the 21st.

Over the years, American cultural hegemony has become a catch-all for discontent.  Since anti-Americanism is one of the few prejudices left open to ordinary people, they take full advantage of it.  There are actually folks in this world cheerleading the demise of the American empire as if it were an international sporting event.   More than a little of this myopic thinking can be traced to a pivotal moment in American history — forty years ago, yesterday — June 17th, 1972.  In the lingering twilight of a late June evening, President Richard Nixon sent his minions to play mischief with the National Democratic Headquarters and changed the world forever — at a place called Watergate.

More than the Kennedy assassination, the Moon Landing or the Vietnam War, Watergate is what has defined America in the second half of the 20th century.  The incredible conspiracy that didn’t so much reach into the White House as begin there, soured the prestige of politics so thoroughly it remains rancid even today — and not only in America but around the world.  The months and years of the Watergate scandal eventually devoured all the goodwill accumulated by America during World War II and the postwar generosity of the Marshal Plan.  It confirmed what young people were saying about the industrial military complex, inequality and racism: America was a poisoned apple, rotten at its very core.

Richard Nixon is the natural villain in all this.  Regardless of how many presidents before or since have bent and broken the law to suit their purposes — including lying to a Grand Jury and dronebombing American citizens out of season — Nixon’s utter disregard for the rule of law set the standard by which all other scandals have since been judged.    No political wrongdoing since 1972 has escaped being suffix-Gated in the media and in our minds.  And that’s the worst of it: the unexpected consequences of the felonies of a President.

Watergate was the beginning of Gotcha Journalism.  As the scandal escalated, it became obvious that the conspiracy was real.  Proof was the problem; catching all the president’s men in the lies and half-truths they were spinning to cover things up became the way to get at it.  Journalists began setting traps for Nixon’s boys — and catching them.  It was no longer a question of if somebody was lying; it was only a question of when and to whom.  Ironically, even as Woodward and Bernstein were being lauded as crusading folk heroes (enrollment in journalism schools doubled by 1974) their style of investigative journalism was going out of style.  Headlines were constructed out of zingers shouted at press conferences, and videotaped ambushes became the norm on the nightly news.  Then, as with every witch hunt, things started getting out of hand.  Innuendo was considered corroboration, opinion newsworthy and everyone was conjuring up their own private “Deep Throat.”  By 1974, without Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, the media was already turning its klieg lights on any public servant who didn’t keep his head down.  Suddenly, everybody from Ford’s demoralized White House to the Des Moines dog catcher was guilty.  Malfeasance was everywhere, and anybody with a press card was out to expose it.  There were reputations to be made, bestsellers to write and movie deals to sign.  Journalism was no longer staid and Walter Cronkite-jowled; it was Redford and Hoffman cool — and only one scandal away from greatness.  Forty years later, the media is still at it, hunting conspiracies like French pigs after truffles.

Watergate, like Gettysburg or Elvis, was a watershed in American history.  It was a point in time when the past was swept away — and just like Gettysburg and Elvis — it not only changed America but the entire world.  Richard Nixon’s presidency was never really the spawn of Satan that many people claim.  His administration was corrupt, without doubt, but history tells us that many administrations have been corrupt — in Washington and around the world.  No, Richard Nixon’s legacy will forever be that he could not protect the prestige of his office nor his country from the ambitions of his own ego.  As a result, he unleashed a media storm that has lasted nearly a half a century.  Most importantly, though, he destroyed the carte blanche of good will America once enjoyed at home and around the world.

Time Flies September 23


 Even if you don’t believe in astrology, you’ll have to admit that the musical planets are somehow aligned on September 23rdRay Charles was born on this day in 1930.  Like him or don’t, Julio Iglesia was also born on this day in 1943, as well as Bruce Springsteen in 1949 and Ani Difranco in 1970.  Pretty darn strange and — OMG — Ani DiFranco is 40!

1806 – Lewis and Clark arrived back in St Louis after a two year journey to explore the west (recently purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson) and find the Pacific Ocean.  The Pacific Ocean had always been there, and all the people they encountered didn’t realize there had even been a real estate deal.  Anyway, they found the Pacific, which they inexplicably named Cape Disappointment, and returned home safely.  This was mainly because they had with them the very first, truly portable GPS – a young Shoshone woman named Sacajawea.

1952 – Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon went on national television to deliver the first in a series of “I am not a crook!” speeches.  He had been accused of keeping a slush fund and was there to deny it.  The press called it the “Checkers Speech” because Nixon tear-jerked the audience with an anecdote about his children’s dog, named Checkers.  From there Nixon went from failure to failure until he was finally elected president in 1968.  In 1972, the Watergate break-in revealed he was presiding over the second most corrupt organization in North America and he resigned.


1939 – Sigmund Freud, the first guy to tell us we had a brain.  He then proceeded to tell us it didn’t work.   Thousands of psychiatrists have followed in his footsteps, telling us how to fix it, and, of course, just how much money it’s going to take to do that.

1987 – Bob Fosse, primarily known as a choreographer.  He won 8 Tony Awards for choreography in his career, but he was also a pretty good director.  In 1973, he was the first — and so far the only — director ever to win a Tony, (Pippin), an Emmy, (Liza with a “Z”) and an Oscar, for (Cabaret) — all in the same year.

Time Flies September 17


1900 – John Willard Marriott, the guy who turned a single root beer stand into the international Marriott Hotel and Restaurant chain.  He also had the good sense not to have any idiot great grandchildren unlike his friend and fellow hotelier, Conrad Hilton.

1931 – Anne Bancroft, a very talented actress who will be forever known for one of the most famous legs in Hollywood and for the lines, spoken by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” (pause) “Aren’t you?”

 1908 – During an aerial demonstration for the military near Fort Myers, Virginia, Orville Wright’s airplane, the Wright Flyer, crashed.   The pilot, Orville Wright was badly hurt but his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, died from his injuries and thus became the first airplane fatality in history.

1776 – The Presidio of San Francisco opened in the California area of New Spain.  It took several months to build the fortifications which guarded the bay, and September 17th was the first day it was operational.


1996 – Spiro Agnew, vice president during most of Richard Nixon’s disastrous presidency.  He is the only Vice President (so far) to resign because of criminal charges and will always be remembered for calling members of the media “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

1899 – Charles Pillsbury, the founder of the original Pillsbury flour company and could probably be called the great great grandfather of The Pillsbury Doughboy.