Teaching Watergate: What do we learn and how do we learn it?

A half-century ago Friday, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom led to an investigation that gripped the country for two years and led to the U.S.’ only presidential resignation. This week, WTOP’s Rick Massimo is talking with experts about how the entire affair has affected American politics, history and even the language ever since.

As the scandal that gripped Washington and the country for nearly two years recedes a half-century into the distance, what’s left to learn about Watergate? And what’s left to learn from it?

In the D.C. area, Watergate isn’t taught explicitly — it’s not mentioned in the statewide curricula for D.C., Maryland or Virginia — but teachers use the events surrounding the scandal to illustrate larger dynamics, such as the role of the free press, or details of the U.S. system, such as the impeachment process.

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

Russo said it gets the students talking about the impeachment process and that they’re interested in the details of what actually happened back in 1972. (You can read more about what Gelman found out about Watergate in D.C.-area schools in this week’s School Zone.)

Three scholars also spoke with WTOP about how Watergate is fading into history, but at the same time continuing to cast a shadow across American life.

Lives, laws, language

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

When he was researching his book in the early 1990s, Schudson said, “It was a memory that was no one had a strong interest in preserving. And the truth is that most people didn’t understand what had happened with Watergate. You know, it was something about a burglary.”

That said, Schudson maintains that the legacy of Watergate affects American lives, law and language.

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

“Whatever else they did in their lives, good or bad, takes second billing to ‘So-and-so was an aide to Richard Nixon in 1972’ or ‘was one of the last people to talk with him in the Oval Office in 1974.’ That leaves an extraordinary mark on the people who were involved in one way or another.”

Legally speaking, the scandal had an impact in such areas as the appointment of special prosecutors and the Freedom of Information Act, a tool reporters use to this day.

And the language of Watergate is still everywhere: “Everything that is aspiring to be regarded as a serious scandal winds up as ‘Something-gate,’ not only in the U.S. but around the world,” Schudson said — even in non-English speaking countries. “It’s a kind of permanent.”

The construction “What did (fill in the blank) know and when did he know it?,” Sen. Howard Baker’s famous question about Nixon, has entered the parlance as well, Schudson said, as has “Follow the money” — a line ascribed to the confidential source Deep Throat, but actually an invention for the movie version of “All the President’s Men.”

All that said, “Watergate looks pretty distant now,” Schudson said. It’s as far in the past now as the Teapot Dome scandal was during the Watergate days, he added, and “I couldn’t tell you what Teapot Dome was about. It was a major scandal of the 1920s in the White House — Warren Harding, I believe? Members of his Cabinet were involved in that, but I couldn’t give you three whole sentences about it.”

Conspiracist thinking

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

After studying the scandal for decades, and listening to the hundreds of hours of scratchy-sounding tapes Nixon recorded in the Oval Office, Hughes said Watergate was more complex, and simpler, than most people realize, and still echoes 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 any good evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it took place.”

The cover-up happened 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’d find out what else Nixon and his henchmen had been doing.

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 American soldiers’ lives — in order to aid his 1968 candidacy.

While the Plumbers weren’t formed until after the 1971 publication of The Pentagon Papers, “Nixon came into office with a crime that he needed to cover up,” Hughes said.

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

Like virtually every subject interviewed for this week’s series of stories, Miller — without prompting — compared the Watergate scandal to the commotion surrounding the hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

“When there’s interest in the subjects that I study,” Hughes said, “it means something has gone wrong. The subjects that 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 the driving of Nixon from office is rightly seen as a bipartisan effort, Hughes said it’s more complex than that.

“Only toward the end of his presidency was there a real strong majority for Nixon resigning,” Hughes said.

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

Elements of that 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 insisting that he was innocent, and that he was railroaded by liberal Democrats and the news media and prosecutors run amok,” Hughes said.

(That view outlives Nixon: The emails responding to this week’s series, while not numerous, unanimously support the view Hughes describes.)

That kind of conspiracist thinking, Hughes added, “has metastasized into this larger movement that is conspiracy theory-minded, eager to believe that it is the victim of government persecution, and eager to actually engage in government persecution and to use their conspiracy theories about their own victimization to victimize those that they deem political threats.”

The myths of Watergate

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 into his classes having been taught that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the Nixon White House with their dogged reporting.

Campbell calls it “the heroic journalist myth,” and while he acknowledges that the duo did important work and that they disavowed the myth themselves, he still spends a lot of time knocking it down.

He says that’s because of Woodward and Bernstein’s book “All the President’s Men,” which by definition centered them in the story; the movie version of the book, which was even more focused on the reporters, and the “the decadeslong guessing game” as to the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s confidential source. (Former FBI deputy director Mark Felt revealed himself as the source in 2005.)

“In Washington, the coin of the realm is exposing secrets,” Campbell said. “And so a secret like this that existed for more than three decades was quite remarkable.” The three factors combine to make a myth that’s “very appealing in that sort of way. Easy to remember, easy to retell.”

While Campbell’s “not a big, big fan of the movie,” he said there are useful ways to use it in class. “It’s sometimes shown 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 secondary schools or colleges and universities.”

He teaches the “heroic journalist myth” to encourage critical thinking: “Reporters without the ability to compel testimony, without the ability to issue subpoenas — is it really likely that they’re going to be able to find that kind of information to unravel a presidency? And such questions, I think get students to begin 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 as to Deep Throat’s identity, and formulating a guess.

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

These sort of ancillary ways of teaching the material become more and more necessary as the years and decades go by. Campbell spoke with WTOP during an online seminar about Watergate, “and there’s a lot of reminiscing going on. But this tends to be an older person’s pursuit these days.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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