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Watergate Remembered

06/21/02 12:00AM By Olin Robison
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It was thirty years ago this week that five men were arrested attempting to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters which was then housed in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. At first it looked like a botched petty burglary. It turned out to be more: much, much more. That seemingly insignificant crime set in motion a dramatic series of events which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon two years later.

Well over half of all Americans living today were either not yet born or too young to remember. But for the rest of us that two years represents the high water mark of politics as high public drama. The Watergate saga was two years of political systems being tested and the good news, of course, was that the system passed with flying colors. But for most of that two years, the outcome was by no means certain which was of course why it was so dramatic.

Every day, it seemed, the public was made aware of yet another layer of this tawdry mess. In many cases the names were already familiar to the public men in high office. Other figures, low level political operatives carrying out orders, seemed to be characters out of a Damon Runyon short story.

Here are some of the names: Haldeman and Erlichman, the two most senior aides to Nixon; John Dean, counsel to the president; Richard Kleindienst, the attorney general who resigned early on, former Attorney General John Mitchell and his colorful and quotable wife, Martha. And then there was E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy and five others involved in the break-in that started it all all working as part of the so-called White House "Plumbers Unit." And there were many more.

Then there were the good guys: Elliott Richardson was appointed attorney general after the Kleindienst resignation. Richardson and his deputy William Ruckleshaus were later fired by Nixon because of their refusal to fire the Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox an episode that came to be known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." Cox was then fired by a compliant solicitor general, a chap named Robert Bork.

The Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill were extraordinary. Who, having seen all that, could ever forget the young African-American congresswoman from Houston, Barbara Jordan. Or the folksy but brilliant chairman of the Senate hearings, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina.

A host of the bad guys served time: Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell were all convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. The group doing the actual Watergate break-in all served jail sentences. And, of course, Richard Nixon resigned shortly before he most assuredly would have been impeached.

Now, with your permission, a short personal story. I was, that spring of 1974, Provost and Dean of the Faculty of Bowdoin College in Maine. Senator Ervin had, many months earlier, accepted a speaking invitation at Bowdoin which turned out to be two days before the dramatic Senate hearings began. To our astonishment, he kept the engagement; and so thirty-six hours before the hearings began, Senator Ervin was speaking to 3,000 people crowded into the Bowdoin Field House.

The next morning I drove him to the airport in Portland for a flight back to Washington. As we parked I said, "Senator, we are all counting on you." He said, without any pretense, "It's okay, son, I have spent my entire life preparing for this moment." And so he had. The entire system was severely tested on matters of the greatest importance. And it worked.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.
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