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Memphis Flyer 25 Years Later

The ship of state survived Watergate -- and so did we.

By Paula F. Casey

AUGUST 16, 1999:  How can it be 25 years since President Nixon resigned? As a journalism student in the summer of 1974 at the University of Tennessee, I was deeply involved in the developing story as managing editor of the UT Daily Beacon.

Even though Nixon admirers always claimed the press was against him, I confess that I cast my first presidential vote for Nixon even though I had voted earlier for Rep. Shirley Chisholm in the Democratic primary. (Years later, the book The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse explained to some of us the basis of our behavior: Sen. McGovern had gotten a bad rap from the press.)

Despite the turmoil of the '60s and early '70s, no one was prepared for the drama that would result from this "third-rate burglary." Watergate became the most serious constitutional crisis the country had seen since perhaps the Civil War. The background was that our national psyche had been shattered by the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the Vietnam war raged on, and the cities were literally burning. Ironically, Nixon ran on a "law and order" platform.

This complex man, who wanted so desperately to be president and who was actually facing an easy reelection, did something even more stupid than having sex with an intern: He raped the system itself, obstructing justice, involving federal agencies in cover-up activities, and turning a deaf ear to those who were concerned about his -- and the country's -- best interests.

The Watergate saga had real heroes and villains (unlike the recent Clinton scandal which had idiots all the way around). Now, with the passage of time, we can look back at the actions of several key people who not only demonstrated exceptional concern for the Constitution but made a conspicuous effort to be fair to Nixon and his staff. (A partial list: special prosecutor Leon Jaworski; Attorney General Elliot Richardson; Reps. Peter Rodino, Tom Railsback, Barbara Jordan, and William Cohen, the latter now Secretary of Defense; Sen. Barry Goldwater, and Sen. Howard "What-did-the-president-know-and-when-did-he-know-it?" Baker.)

The tapes did Nixon in, of course. Even his closest aides and defenders knew the president had to resign or face removal from office. Sen. Goldwater became an American hero at the moment that he went to Nixon and told him the jig was up, that the Republican Party that contained them both could no longer defend his actions. Nixon had finally lost the confidence of his supporters as well as that of the American people.

Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if there had been no tapes. As someone with a strong interest in history who is also a political junkie, I'm certainly glad they are available. Future generations can hear Nixon's voice and perhaps even get insight into his behavior.

Microfilmed newspapers from that period are another marvelous resource for researchers. I remember reading the Washington Post articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who inspired many in my generation to view journalism as a higher calling, before newspapers became "corporatized" and bean-counters took over.

We can't remember Watergate as being all bad. There was Gerald Ford's decency as the peaceful transition of power took place. He had the respect of the Congress and the American people as he, an unelected vice president, took over the presidency. And the nation survived. Those of us who lived through Watergate knew that, after "our long national nightmare" was indeed over, we could survive anything. And we have.

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