There’s still much to learn from Watergate

Originally published in the Deseret News.

I was 10 years old when burglars were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The intruders had been caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents to help President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. In the months that followed, I, like a lot of people, watched in disbelief, even horror, as the abuse of power by the president of the United States was on full display.

This week, I received a welcome reminder of the lessons learned from Watergate — then and now. I attended an event in Washington hosted by the Deseret News. The gathering focused on the twin virtues of trust and integrity and featured perspectives from Bob Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from The Washington Post, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a former law clerk for Judge John J. Sirica (the judge who presided over the trial of the Watergate burglars) and current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Insights were also shared by Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center.

The timing and location of the discussion was not lost on me. We sat within walking distance of our nation’s founding documents and sacred monuments and listened to the horrid tales of Watergate. Our minds jumped from past to present as we now endure the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history, alarming dysfunction and unbecoming vitriol. We pondered Watergate-era violations of public trust and lack of personal integrity, even as the current occupant of the White House faces 17 criminal investigations.

There is an oft-quoted maxim that says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s what this night was all about — helping us remember that our most essential public institutions and cherished personal relationships falter if we fail to uphold trust and integrity.

The panelists shared thought-provoking insights. Woodward reminded the audience of the dangerous isolation of our presidents. He said, “If you study presidents, you’ll find that they all think and talk about destiny. That isolates them even more.”

Elder Christofferson spoke about integrity as a human trait, not an institutional one. He said, “Institutions are people. When we talk about trust and integrity, it’s people we are talking about.” It was a powerful reminder of the need to invest more in the moral education of our citizenry.

The panelists talked about “fork in the road” and “blurring of the line” moments when trustworthy decisions must be made in an environment of rationalization and relativism. Elder Christofferson reminded the audience that even small decisions matter. The program quoted him as saying, “Putting one’s integrity on hold, even for seemingly small acts in seemingly small matters, places one in danger of eventually losing the benefit and protection of conscience all together.”

On the same topic, Woodward encouraged the audience to “slow down” and benefit from the luxury of time. He said sometimes the wrong decision is made because we don’t take time to think about our actions.

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurred when Woodward discussed President Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Nixon. Woodward explained his disappointment when the pardon happened. He said, “I would have staked my life as a 25-year-old reporter that (the pardon) was corrupt.” He then said, “But the lens of history taught me something more.”

Woodward shared what he learned in an interview with Ford many years after the pardon. Ford told Woodward of the struggle during the first 30 days of the new presidency. Every question was about Nixon. Ford reflected, “I needed my own presidency.” Even more important, Ford explained, the American people needed that too.

The lesson here is nuanced, but profound. Sometimes things aren’t what they seem. Integrity requires us to look deeper; trust requires us to be patient. Progress requires us to forgive.

I left the conversation wondering whether sometimes it takes a forest fire to reclaim the forest. Watergate was a raging fire. Today we face new fires. Now is the perfect time to reaffirm the bedrock principles of trust and integrity.