A Watergate groupie's dream dinner

It was my dream come true. I've been "wallowing in Watergate" since I was a teenager, when I realized that developing a maniacal interest in politics was less stressful than worrying about a social life. A few weeks ago I found myself sitting across a dinner table from some of the people I had watched every day on TV during those shimmering days of nonstop Watergate hearings. Be still, my geeky heart.

Scattered around the genteel living room were artifacts from my extensive collection of Nixonia: the Spiro Agnew wastebasket, the Nixon-Agnew hand puppets, the life-size inflatable Nixon torso. One of the guests of honor eyed my treasures and quoted Bob Woodward: Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving.

The evening itself was a gift - a prize my wife and some friends bid on at a PTA auction. "Impeachment Then and Now," the catalog entry read. "Have you ever wanted to ask investigators from the Senate Watergate Committee about their strategy?" Oh yes - for about 20 years. I'd spent the week surveying my fellow Watergate freaks about the questions they'd want to ask the top lawyers on the committee's chief counsel staff.

"Ask them if Woodward and Bernstein got it right," suggested one Washington reporter. (Mostly, they said, except for some dollar amounts.) "And while you're at it, ask about the theory I discussed in my book about the CIA." (Uh, that's when they started to laugh.)

After 20 years, the group hadn't lost their investigative edge.

"I'm just curious," one of our honored guests probed, "how much did you pay for this dinner?" My friends and I stonewalled, thinking perhaps that the truth ($225 split 5 ways) might seem penny-ante.

As they reminisced about how a bunch of punk kids (with Harvard law degrees) took on Richard Nixon, my wife enthused, "I think you are heroes." I wondered how many people would agree with her.

The war stories continued.

"Remember how I accidentally took Rose Mary Woods to the wrong stop on the Capitol Hill subway? She was furious because she was sure I was making her walk all that way on purpose."

I grew more envious. Not just for the experiences they had shared, but for what this country used to be like. People used to have political heroes, and they looked to politics for answers to fundamental problems. Now politics is entertainment and politicians are anything but heroic.

I started to think about how a 16-year-old today would react to the steady diet of Watergate hearings I consumed back in the 1970s. Would they, too, regard the investigators on their screens as heroes? One of the best books about Watergate is Jimmy Breslin's "How the Good Guys Finally Won." But did they?

If the system really worked, as the popular wisdom held back then, we would today be enjoying the fruits of a post-Watergate crop of political morality and ethics. Everyone who cares about democracy would vow, never again. Yet our campaign system is more corrupt than ever, and presidents are considered untrustworthy until proven otherwise.

At the time, Watergate seemed like a watershed - a real turning point in politics. Now, it's a curio at an auction, a memory guarded by political junkies like me. I realized that my Watergate trivia questions were, well, trivial. I still wanted to ask them, but a more profound question was forming as well. Where's the outrage, I wondered.

Twenty-five years ago, the Watergate investigations shocked us by revealing blatant abuses of presidential power. Today, Congress routinely assumes such abuses, and every committee chairman wants to prosecute the White House.

Before Watergate, we expected our leaders to ask a question John F. Kennedy asked: what he could do for his country. Now, we think of presidents as the sort of people who wonder, "What can I get away with?"

Can we still blame Richard Nixon for voters' cynicism and disgust with politicians? I don't see why not. As my dinner companions reminded me, the crimes of Watergate were fundamental assaults on our democracy. If people are disillusioned with politics now, it's for some very good reasons. Watergate put American politics in the gutter, and we've been trying to crawl out ever since.

*William S. Klein is a political consultant in Silver Spring, Md.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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