Bill Murchison
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Rehashing Watergate -- our apparent preoccupation during this, the 30th anniversary week of the fabled break-in -- is akin to refighting the Battle of Gettysburg. It comes out the same every time, no matter how you rearrange the flags. Dick Nixon goes down hard (prior to finding life again as an author-statesman -- the clearest evidence I know of human resiliency), and in due course, our moral exemplar becomes, um, Jimmy Carter. Once more anyway, the pundits wring their hands. Oh, that wretch of a Nixon! Ah, the shame of his deeds! Well, maybe so. What sticks fast in the memory is the wretchedness and shame of the era, considered as a whole. The republic appeared to have lost its moral equilibrium; it teetered on the verge of outright nuttiness. Often enough, it toppled in headfirst. Malice and distrust were epidemic at the time, and they did not commence with Watergate. The '60s did that job. My observation at the time was that if, chronologically or philosophically, you were of the old culture, and you disliked draft-card burners and student protesters, not to mention Jane Fonda, you tended not to mind -- at first anyway -- presidential actions that could be viewed as obstructing these gentries. On the other hand, if you hated The War and had wept over Kent State and habitually referred to the president as Tricky Dick, you knew deep down that the dirty so-and-so was deceiving us, never mind his protestations of rectitude. In which sense, you were righter than the rest. But that was to some degree the problem. The rest weren't going to throw the president of the United States to the wolves, who, having torn him to bits, would have smugly affirmed the bankruptcy of everything for which their late dinner had stood. It was that kind of time. Watergate ultimately was about Kent State and My Lai, the Tet Offensive and Sproul Hall at Berkeley. Jerry Rubin and "Hanoi Jane" were in a sense larger (albeit unglimpsed) protagonists than Bob Haldeman and Sam Ervin. This was perhaps why no one could win such an affray as Watergate -- because it was about matters larger than cover-ups and tape gaps and who knew what when. Americans didn't much like each other back then and unfailingly showed it. We hadn't much faith in our own future as a united people. Watergate increased at least for a time the wariness felt by potential malefactors in office. It failed to make officeholders more fundamentally honest (one judges by the record since then); mainly, it seems to have made them more attentive to covering their tracks -- with significant exceptions, as we learned during our latest impeachment controversy. Nor did unvarnished moralism look so attractive after we tried it out. Jimmy Carter, whatever his virtues as a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, was a near-total washout as president and national leader, his lone achievement being the Camp David agreement. So high on its moral high horse did Congress clamber, under post-Watergate Democratic leadership, that it gutted our foreign intelligence system (inadvertently boosting the future prospects of al Qaeda) and sold out our erstwhile South Vietnamese allies. It took Ronald Reagan to restore at least part way our -- you thought I was going to say greatness, didn't you? I was actually going to say he partly restored our sense of humor and our feeling for each other as fellow Americans. We saw this feeling come in gloriously handy after Sept. 11. Post-Watergate America, beset by the bin Ladenists, would have beaten its breast in collective shame for a national arrogance receiving its expected (and perhaps deserved) rebuke. Some anniversary occasion, huh? There is just this about it: It's the 30th, not the 20th or the fifth. We progress. Our grandchildren may be so fortunate as not to remember, far less to care, that their elders once tried to puzzle out the identity of a shadowy figure dubbed Deep Throat.
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Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
 
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