By C.J. Marshall: Significa: Only in America
Forty years ago this month, an event occurred which set a precedent in U.S. history.
President Richard M. Nixon announced to the nation that he was resigning his office, turning over the chief executive post to Vice-President Gerald R. Ford. Nixon's action was the first time a standing U.S. president had stepped down, and it remains the only time such an act has occurred in this country's existence. His resignation also signaled the end of a long and unhappy process for the American public. But for me, having lived through it, I also consider it one of America's proudest moments.
Yes, I was there. Although I was a teenager, I still remember when I first began hearing some rumors floating around, about how a break-in had been discovered at the Democratic headquarters in Washington. And this was before the 1972 election. However, like many people at the time, I just brushed those rumors off. After all "dirty tricks" have always been a part of the political process throughout this country's existence, and at the time I just figured it was probably done by some minor political bully boys, hoping to score points with those higher up in the Republican hierarchy.
Or so I thought. After the election, a disquieting thing occurred - both for me as well as the nation as a whole. Those rumors did not disappear. In fact things kept on getting worse and worse, as time went on. A series of stories that appeared in the Washington Post from reporters Carl Woodward and Bob Beirnstein - who first uncovered the improprieties in how the burglars caught in the break-in were handled by the legal system - started to raise hard questions about what was going on. Questions which remained unanswered as the executive branch continually stonewalled efforts to find out specific information.
It was at this point that the term "Watergate" - the name of the hotel where the break-in occurred - entered the language to become synonymous with "political scandal." Every day you heard more and more about Watergate, and every day more people began to ask things like: "What went on." and "Why all the cover-up?"
I'll confess that through most of the time as the scandal was unraveling, I did not think Nixon was guilty of anything. I figured that some of his staff probably got out of hand - his administration wouldn't have been the first when such a thing occurred - and I just found it inconceivable at the time that a U.S. president would use his powers of office to so brazenly attempt to thwart the legal process.
But things continued to get worse. Congressional hearings were called for, which were broadcast on television. There it was, a major political scandal, with who knows where it was going to lead and nobody knowing what kind of political consequences were going to occur. I was still in high school at the time, and it was at that point in my life I decided to choose a career in journalism. I probably would have anyway, even if Watergate hadn't occurred, but the efforts of Woodward and Beirnstein - as wells as Washington Post editor Ben Bradley - proved an inspiration to me. Here was proof of the power of the press and how it could root out scandal and hold even the highest office in the land accountable for its actions. Many have contended over the years that it was actually the Justice Department which ultimately brought down Nixon, but I insist that without those initial stories appearing in the Washington Post, the greatest political scandal of the 20th century would never have seen the light of day.
Finally, even Nixon went too far when he fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Now known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," whatever support or sympathy the president had at that point evaporated. Eventually, even Nixon saw the handwriting on the wall, and opted to resign, rather than face the very real possibility of impeachment.
A few years later, I was speaking to a friend of mine, and we compared notes about what occurred that led up to Nixon resigning. And the more I thought about it, the more proud I became of the American system in general. Here we as a nation had undergone a major political scandal, in which our chief executive had disgraced himself not only before the country, but the rest of the world as well. In many other political systems in many other countries, such an act would have probably been covered up - perhaps very brutally - and never seen the light of day. Or, such behavior on the part of the chief executive could have signaled the collapse of the country's political system and perhaps even triggered a bloody revolution.
But not here. We Americans put our worst political scandal right in the front window for all the world to see; we handled it in a bloodless, efficient and fair manner; and then, at its conclusion, we went on with our lives with full confidence in the same system of government which had served us well for almost 200 years, and still continues to serve us to this day. The fact that we accomplished this without so much as a tremor to our system neatly demonstrates why we as a nation have always been able to weather the worst of any political storm; always coming back stronger each and every time.
C.J. Marshall is a writer/columnist for The Daily Review. He can be reached at (570) 265-1630; or firstname.lastname@example.org.