OPINION: Watergate is more than history on 45th anniversary
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“I am certain this will be the most important event in your lives. I know it was in mine.” 

Not a sentence you expect to hear as a mere twenty-two year old. The two of us were still only in college during that early summer in 1974 when Sam Dash, Chief Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, gathered his staff for the last time. We had worked around the clock for a year and a half.

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By that time, the team was down to about sixty of us — mostly young attorneys, staffers and stenographers — from twice that number a few months prior, when the Committee was embroiled in the Nixon Tapes case and the challenges of Executive Privilege. Dash’s message was matter-of-fact and warm, but it stung. We were so young, and certainly there was more to come in our individual lives.

 

Today, June 17th, it is 45 years since the Watergate burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee campaign headquarters in the Watergate Office building — a crime that would bring the nation to the brink of a Constitutional crisis. 

Looking back, Sam Dash might have been correct. What happened on the Senate Watergate Committee for the senators and their staffs was unprecedented, and it glued a nation to daytime telecasts like never before in history. Its legacies — from celebrity journalists to the universally known “-gate” suffix — have embedded themselves in our national fabric; society as we knew it was changed forever. The branches of government — what we learned about when civics classes existed — seemed to be exchanging powerful salvos. It was alive and dramatic, and in some ways even touching. Government was real and the people’s stake in it was on the line.

As Nixon stepped onto Marine 1 and left D.C. on August 9th, 1974, resigning to avoid impeachment, there was a palpable sense that something defining had happened. The social and political tumult of the 1960s, which in spirit had extended into the early 1970’s, had come to an abrupt end. Truth had spoken to power. The country had participated and it belonged to the people, or so it seemed.  But the intervening four decades have seen a near constant erosion of the value of that truth. Today, we as a nation must once again revitalize our collective understanding of how government works. We must care about it, and we must get involved.

The two of us joined the Watergate Committee as college students, and have remained lifelong friends. Elisabeth was an intern from Wellesley College, working for

Senator Sam Ervin, the colorful and earnest Democratic Chairman on the Senate Watergate Committee. Ervin assigned her to the new Committee’s staff headquarters, housed in a hastily converted Senate auditorium — Room G308 in the Russell Senate Office Building. Gordon was at Michigan State and sensed the exigent, contagious energy of the Sixties making its way to the Hill. He left East Lansing for D.C., and landed a job on the Committee staff.

What we, and others on the Watergate Committee staff witnessed in 1973 and ‘74 was something that could not be fully appreciated until recently. To our young army of over a hundred truth seekers trying to understand what occurred in the 1972 presidential election, the truth was then a solid thing. It was the most essential substance to maintain the civil society and democratic practice that we knew. Whether we leaned toward one party or the other, in the end, the American Dream and the pillars of our country rested on the same bedrock of respect for the truth.

When Senator Ervin opened the Watergate hearings on May 25, 1973, it seemed that the Constitution itself was speaking through him, his white hair and errant eyebrows in constant motion: “If these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election. Since that day, a mood of incredulity has prevailed among our populace, and it is the constitutional duty of this committee to allay the fears being expressed by the citizenry, and to establish the factual bases upon which these fears have been founded.”

His words ring profoundly true to this day.

Forty-five years later, we are back to same questions of intelligence gathering, FBI investigations, dark money and loyalty to people rather than country. The tools of the trade have been upgraded, but their use and intent are the same. The staggering difference is the probable involvement of Russia. Today, the same questions loom. Can standing committees of Congress investigate potential Russian tampering and possible campaign collusion in a non-partisan manner?  If there was potential criminal activity, can the Special Counsel pursuing it be protected from presidential pressure? Does the country care the way it did in the early 1970’s?  

Watergate, in a sense, is forever. It’s not the coincidence that similar events are happening again that is important, but that this recurrence of events stems from a constant tension between executive power and transparency, a tension that must be kept in check by the civic vigilance of an engaged and informed public.

On June 17th, 2017, the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the Committee staff and the last living Senator from the committee, former Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, will reconvene to consider these questions.

The committee reunion is a reminder of what it takes to investigate completely — to place the truth above all else. While we have organized small reunions in the past, this year we expect as many people in the room as were present at Sam Dash’s farewell staff meeting. We will gather with a solemn sense of purpose and urgency. This year we are not just reminiscing about the past, but considering what it can tell us about the present and the future.

Gordon Freedman worked as a staffer on the Senate Watergate Committee as a college student at Michigan State. He went onto pursue a career in education technology, and currently serves as President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (www.NLET.org), a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit.

Elisabeth DeMarse worked as an intern for Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, during her time as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. Most recently, she served as President and CEO and chairman of the Board of TheStreet, Inc.


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