OPED: Watergate revisited: ‘What a long strange trip it’s been’

Chris Hertig
Spring Garden

As a college sophomore in 1974, I knew a little about the Watergate scandal and was astounded by seeing Vice President Spiro Agnew resign on TV. The dorm floor’s single set showed him resigning. He had 40 pages of indictments against him for stupid things; acts well beneath the Vice President of the United States.

Demonstrators gather outside the White House a day after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

That summer I was in training at Fort Knox with Army ROTC. I hadn’t signed a contract; I was not in the Army but was with the Army. As Watergate heated up, a showdown between Nixon and the Supreme Court developed. Myself and some fellow cadets wondered what would happen if Nixon disobeyed the Supreme Court.

A coup? Where would we be in such a situation?

We pestered this sergeant who was on CQ duty and kept up to date on Watergate. Every day we spoke with him and asked him for a newspaper. We had gone from “Current- Event Clueless College Students” to news junkies.

My main takeaway is that world events impact us as individuals. Keeping abreast of the news is important; something I always preached to my subordinates and students. Decades after Watergate I wanted to tell a troublesome student about my own 20-year-old dumbness when I gave her newspaper articles. She argued, she complained, but never asked me why I was giving them to her. Tactfully telling my Watergate war story would get through to her as it had with others. But I never got the chance for that teachable moment.

In August of 1974 Nixon made his resignation speech.  A friend and I watched it in our TV room with my grandmother. She was a stalwart Nixon supporter but when he resigned she said “He’s a dope. He should resign because he’s a dope”. Nothing criminal in her eyes, just monumental dumbness. Like Trump (and Hillary “The Email Queen”).

During Watergate the media got after Nixon like wolves on a caribou. We’re seeing this today, but nastier, like starving wolves on steroids. It’s also much more oppressive with 24-hour news and social media. Plus, Trump combats the media; fueling a feeding frenzy from his opposition.

Taping! Nixon had tapes and Trump may also have recorded key conversations. The existence of tapes raises serious legal and investigative consequences. It’s a game changer which also intensifies and prolongs the media pounding.

In Watergate, Republican leaders did what they had to in order to get to the bottom of it. Today we see the real party leaders, not the wieners concerned with reelection, speaking out and calling for serious steps to be taken.

Moral courage is timeless. It’s a major part of what being a leader is all about.

Staff exiles were a factor in Watergate and certainly will be this time around. Back then they testified and subsequently wrote books. It will be very interesting to see what “Slippery Mike Flynn” and Carter Page do when the heat is on. Weasels squeal loudly when squeezed.  And then there’s James Comey!  All will say some interesting things and likely turn the smoke of scandal into fire.

Watergate had “Deep Throat” as an info source. Now we have numerous leaks about a myriad of issues. Morality may not be the motivating factor behind these leaks. Seemingly, anti-Trump sentiment and the allure of the media is causing them (drip, drip, drip….).

Trump’s base of support is perhaps the biggest difference between then and now. Nobody in recent history has had a base like that. Not Nixon. Not nobody. The pundits and pollsters still don’t get it. They can’t get it.

But it’s there. A force to be reckoned with.  Aided and abetted by a short public attention span and the constant “distractions” of North Korea, Syria, terrorism, cyber crime, etc.; cemented in place by a Republican Congress.

What a long, strange trip lies ahead.

— Chris Hertig, Spring Garden, taught at York College for 28 years and writes about a variety of topics. He’s on the York Dispatch Editorial Advisory Board. 

Chris Hertig