Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor of the Clearwater Sun. Send Driver an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Forty years have passed, and I still miss Watergate. It was a marvelous news story, as well as a mystery tale and morality lesson, all wrapped into one. It didnít have much sex in it, but that didnít matter much when you had spies, burglaries, secret payoffs, lies, betrayal, comedy, a snitch named Deep Throat, illicit tape recordings, blackmail and the gradual, month-by-month unraveling of an attack on our Constitution by the nationís highest official: a scoundrel named Richard Nixon.
The most endearing virtue of the Watergate story was that, in a city where rogues routinely work their evil and then walk away scot-free, this time the bad guys (or most of them) were caught and punished. Forty of them did prison time. To follow the daily news accounts of Watergate was to watch a large, nasty can of worms turn over, with slimy creatures slithering out at an average rate of two per month. But then good finally triumphed over evil, or seemed to.
I never hob-nobbed or even met any of the Watergate-era players, with one exception: Ken Clawson, who became one of Nixonís press relations officials. In 1963, just as I was leaving the Toledo Blade after three years, Clawson signed on. I met him briefly, probably at a meeting of Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism fraternity. Clawson became the Bladeís labor reporter, and did an excellent job, from all accounts. His skills won him a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, and from there he moved on to the Washington Post and, eventually, to the White House. He described himself as ďone of Nixonís spear carriers, and proud of it.Ē He was reputed to have been the perpetrator of dirty tricks that helped to sink Ed Muskieís hopes of becoming the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate. That honor went to George McGovern, who Nixon easily defeated.
In the marvelous Watergate film, ďAll the Presidentís Men,Ē Clawson was portrayed as begging Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein not to mention his friendship with one of the Postís female employees. His memorable defense was ďIíve got a wife and a family and a dog and a cat.Ē Clawson was not convicted or even implicated in any of the Watergate shenanigans. He died of heart trouble not many years later.
One of the few instances of comic relief that brightened the Watergate saga came from Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixonís attorney general John Mitchell. Martha (later nicknamed ďThe Mouth of the SouthĒ) was inclined to drink a lot. When liquored up she telephoned news media and chatted about the hush-hush goings on of her husband and his conniving associates. Nixon later blamed the entire Watergate mess on Martha. He said she so distracted her husband that he was unable to ďmanage the storeĒ (i.e., the break-in and coverup). Nixon told interviewer Robert Frost that if it hadnít been for Martha, Watergate never would have happened. I loved Martha.
During the Watergate affair I worked in Tampa for a company whose executives tended to be conservative in political outlook. So I revealed little of my satisfaction at watching Nixon and his gang exposed. But each evening I hustled to my home in Indian Rocks Beach in time to catch the network news and the latest Watergate revelation. During those two years I felt shame that the White House was occupied by fascist maggots, but proud that in the end they were hunted down and exterminated. My enduring conclusion is that if the USA could withstand the likes of Richard Nixon, we can withstand anyone. I hope Iím right.
The achievement of reporters Woodward and Bernstein in smoking out the Watergate crooks resulted in a sharp increase in journalism school enrollments. Young men and women looking for meaningful careers realized the enormous good that could come from journalists who smell a rat and then chase it down despite opposition from People in High Places. Today I find myself wondering how many of those Woodward-Bernstein recruits are still on the job. Investigative reporting is hard, expensive work and many of todayís news outlets have chosen to reduce their efforts to find the rottenness that is always present in government, big business and other endeavors. But this truth remains: the loftiest role of any reporter is that of watchdog. Watergate proved that.
A tragic fallout of the Watergate affair is that it almost surely cost Jerry Ford his chance to be elected president for a full term. In an attempt to heal the nationís wounds, Ford granted Nixon a full pardon for his crimes. This angered millions of voters, who responded by electing Jimmy Carter. What irony: an upstanding, decent man (Ford) shows forgiveness to a bum (Nixon) and by doing so hands the presidency to a vacillating wimp (Carter). They say no kindness goes unpunished.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send Driver an email at email@example.com.