TWENTY years ago a few attentive readers of The Washington Post read a small story noting that burglars were apprehended the previous day, June 17, in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate office/apartment complex. Most of Washington skimmed over the minor story; the rest of America, of course, knew nothing of it.
Within months, though, "Watergate" was synonymous with the largest government scandal since Teapot Dome. Eventually the revelations of abuses of government power, break-ins by "plumbers," hush money, coverup, and secret tapes brought down a president and sent officials to prison.
For the American people and political system, Watergate was a watershed. Its legacy has left a permanent imprint on that system. Some of the changes wrought by Watergate have been, on balance, healthy: the enactment of campaign-finance reform, political-openness, and special-prosecutor laws; the awakening of the press watchdog; and a more intense scrutiny on officials' character.
At the same time, however, Watergate fostered a distrust of government on the part of the governed that, though at times warranted, has become an entrenched and corrosive element in the body politic. The alienation from the system felt by many Americans today has its roots in Watergate.
Watergate was not, as it's said, a "constitutional crisis." The structure of government established by the Constitution was not threatened by the Nixon administration's criminal acts. It's remarkable how swiftly Congress and the judicial branch, asserting their constitutional prerogatives, uncovered the wrongs and punished the wrongdoers. Watergate demonstrated not the precariousness, but the sturdiness of American institutions.
It's well to consider the lessons of Watergate, but those lessons can be misapplied. Viewing every imperfection in American institutions and leadership through the Watergate lens exaggerates the prevalence of corruption in public life.