June 17 is an important date in my life.
In 1961, I was Bar Mitzvah’d. This did not make the 6 o’clock news then or now,
but I remember it anyway. As my readers know, I still use the Webster’s
Dictionary I received that day and I got a set of cufflinks with my initials on
them that I still wear, too. No fountain pens, though.
A brief eleven years later I was on the
floor of my small (and I do mean small) apartment in Durham, NC doing my
sit-ups as a senior medical student and watching the first color TV I had ever
bought in preparation for the Summer Olympics from Munich where I hoped the
late, great Steve Prefontaine would win the 5000 meter run. He did not. Eleven
Israeli athletes lost their lives and in May 1975, Steve lost his in an auto
accident. But the real reason I remember this day was that the lead news story
that morning was a foiled break-in attempt at Democratic National Headquarters
in a combined apartment/office complex in Washington, DC called the Watergate.
I remember exactly what I thought when I
heard the news. “Huh?”
Why would anyone break into the
headquarters of the DNC, especially in 1972 when then President Nixon was
cruising to re-election? This story made absolutely no sense.
Two years later, during the opening months
of my junior residency, Nixon resigned. Professor William Van Alstyne of the
Duke Law School had told a gathered group of medical school faculty and
students that I led in monthly dinner meetings, that Nixon was toast over a
year before the 1974 resignation and he was correct. All the signs that would have led to impeachment and eventual conviction were clear to a Constitutional
scholar such as Van Alstyne.
The –gate in Watergate plagues us to this
day 42 years later. Every scandal is named for a gate (except maybe
Iran-Contra; so I guess if the President does it, it gets a fresh coat of paint
and Monica was just Monica).
For those of you who don’t remember,
Watergate was not about the break-in. It wasn’t even about all that cash
floating around the Committee to Re-Elect the President, known as CREEP.
Watergate was about the abuse of power by the highest elected official in the
land and his Department of Justice. It was also about how they almost got away
with it were it not for some audio tapes Nixon should have burned (see
Frost/Nixon), and Alexander Butterfield telling Congress the Oval Office tapes
even existed, a secret Presidents Kennedy and Johnson managed to hide.
The country was almost reduced to rubble
not with a Japanese sneak attack or airplanes plowing into skyscrapers. It was
almost brought down by evil and the flouting of Constitutionality. You can
fight enemies with bombs and drones, even ones that don’t wear uniforms like
our current adversaries. But when the leadership of a precious democratic constitutional entity like the
United States undermines the integrity of his office, it took not bullets but
typewriters to bring him down.
I am not sure that the pen is mightier
than the sword any more, but I am quite sure the keyboard can be. But that’s
just a start and it wasn’t the Washington Post alone that brought down Richard
Nixon. It was the federal judiciary and the Congress of the United States
acting in their oversight capacities as written in the Constitutional checks
and balances the Founding Fathers had the foresight to include in our charter so that no
monarch could rule the US again that really turned the public against the
President. The people’s representatives spoke and Nixon quit.
Now, about that Board of Regents and Faculty