The Rushmore Report: Lessons from Watergate

Richard M. Nixon resigned as President of the United States 41 years ago. On August 9, 1974 the Watergate scandal resulted in the only presidential resignation in American history. What was otherwise considered a successful presidency, especially in the arena of foreign affairs, would become a scar that many believe has yet to heal. Nixon ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam and brought the American prisoners home. His visit to the People’s Republic of China opened diplomatic relations between the two nations. Nixon initiated détente and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. His administration bolstered states rights and imposed wage and price controls, enforced desegregation of Southern schools, and established the Environmental Protection Agency. The Apollo 11 moon landing brought an end to the moon race, and Nixon was elected to his second term by one of the largest landslide votes in history.

Despite his remarkable accomplishments, Nixon is viewed harshly by most observers. It all comes down to one word – Watergate. On June 17, 1972, five men broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The story was brought to light by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who relied on an informant know as “Deep Throat,” later revealed to be Mark Felt, associate director at the FBI. A complex cover-up was exposed, and growing evidence surfaced that laid the blame at the feet of the President. On November 17, 1973, during a televised question and answer session with the press, Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Legal battles ensued, and the House Judiciary Committee opened impeachment hearings on May 9, 1974. On July 24, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the full tapes, which would reveal what Nixon knew and when he knew it. Rather than be removed from office, President Nixon resigned on August 9. What are the lessons from Watergate? I see three.

1. What we do in the darkness will be revealed in the light. “All things being exposed in the light are made evident” (Ephesians 5:13). The Old Testament says, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). What can be hidden for a period cannot be hidden forever. History is filled with stories of men and women who thought they had gotten away with something. When five men broke into the Democratic offices, they were delusional in thinking what began as a secret would stay that way.

2. Sin always comes with a price. You and I can choose any path we want, but we do not get to choose the ramifications. When David committed murder and adultery, he pled for God’s forgiveness. While God forgave the sin, that sin still had consequences. Paul said, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). The Watergate scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged with a crime, and 48 were convicted, including John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean. On November 30, 1978, Nixon said to the news media in Britain, “I screwed up on Watergate and I paid the price.”

3. The cover-up is worse than the crime. King David tried to cover up his sin, and failed. It was in his blood. The first man to sin was the first man. And he did what most of us do; he shifted the blame. Many historians believe Nixon could have survived Watergate if he had not gone out of his way to erase the tapes and deny knowledge of the acts others had carried out. I remember the time I failed to put my bike up after a ride. I was about eight at the time. My dad confronted me, and I denied being the one who left my bike out. My punishment stung, if you know what I mean. Later that day, my dad told me my punishment was not for leaving the bike out, but for lying about it. The cover-up is always worse than the crime.

The Watergate scandal gripped an entire nation. Even the pardon which President Ford granted his predecessor would not undo the damage. Many historians see Watergate as the official ending to the period of innocence, marked by Camelot and Mayberry. America was no longer the nation she had always been. It was the most painful moment in history for many baby boomers, just coming into their own. But the lessons of Watergate are as old as the human race itself. May these lessons inform us today, lest we repeat the sins of our past as we step into our future.