Watergate is about courage

In the spring and summer of 1973, I shared a large early-20th-century house on a hill overlooking Boulder, Colo., with a couple of lawyer friends. There are a lot of stories from those months, but my overwhelming memory the past week has been of sitting in front of a television set for days on end completely mesmerized by Sen. Sam Ervin’s (D-N.C.) Watergate hearings.

In the spring and summer of 1973, I shared a large early-20th-century house on a hill overlooking Boulder, Colo., with a couple of lawyer friends. There are a lot of stories from those months, but my overwhelming memory the past week has been of sitting in front of a television set for days on end completely mesmerized by Sen. Sam Ervin’s (D-N.C.) Watergate hearings.

In my mind, it ranks as broadcast television’s finest hours. We were transfixed as threads first exposed by a couple of junior reporters who were assigned to a third-rate burglary were pulled and pulled until a president reelected in a landslide was forced to resign in disgrace.

Watergate was a watershed event for millions of Americans. One of my most prized pieces of office art is an original, signed political cartoon by Paul Conrad of Marine One lifting off over the White House with the handwritten legend “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” (I have staff members born since 1970 who just don’t get the gag, but the irony of Kesey meets Nixon will always give me a giggle.)

To me, the message of Watergate will always be that courageous individuals can make a difference. The courage of two fledgling reporters to follow a story no one else wanted to cover. The courage of a newspaper editor to run with what threatened for months to be a dead end. The courage of a government official to break the rules. I like to think he did it for principle; others cite an axe to grind. No matter — it took courage to guide a couple of kids through one of the biggest political stories of the 20th century.

I’ve been wondering the past week if that story would be written now, in 2005. I fear it would not. We have a White House devoted to secrecy and loyalty, expert at message control and schooled by the lessons of Watergate. Many of those in power in this administration lived through those tortuous two years.

Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have both done all they can to roll back the “reforms” that resulted from Watergate. Some of those reforms arguably made the defense and intelligence agencies overly cautious and could even have contributed to Sept. 11. But the rollbacks have also made it easier to conduct the public’s business in private and to hide abuses in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and who knows where else in the past few years.

But three decades ago we had a Nixon White House with an equal if not more paranoid devotion to secrecy. The fact that it was sloppy about things such as money trails, inept burglars and tape-recorded conversations does not change the fact that Nixon’s team was dedicated to doing business behind closed doors.

The bigger problem is what has happened to the media in the past three decades. Watergate is a story that was covered by virtually one newspaper for months. It took two years of intense investigation, dogged determination and resistance to White House spin control finally to tell that story.

Eventually it became the biggest news in the country, covered by networks and newspapers alike. But in today’s all-news, all-the-time world stories don’t get covered that way. Instead, the media make brief mention of a war gone bad between Michael Jackson’s trial, Russell Crowe’s use of phones as a weapon or whatever Paris Hilton did last night. Television is dominated by Tucker Carlson’s tie, Bill Press’s warm smile and the curmudgeonly cynicism of Pat Buchanan. Sound-bite shouting matches pass for serious news.

Worse, the news media seem so much more timid now. Even Bob Woodward spends most of his time writing books that require him to “develop relationships” so that he can tell us how we went to war, not why. Now that the White House has successfully used patriotism to force Newsweek to withdraw a story, all media are going to be more nervous about confidential sources. Even though their source supposedly crumpled, later reports suggest the Newsweek story was essentially true. Will truth be enough of a reason to stand up against a White House again?

Three decades after he first spoke up, the message of Mark Felt’s unmasking is that we need people of courage to keep any government honest. People who are willing to risk their careers to talk to reporters, media empires with the courage and commitment to follow stories wherever they lead, and courage to devote the time to find the truth.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com