As the surreal nature of 1973 devolved into the constitutional crisis of 1974, I was but a wee lad in upstate New York. When the news of a mundane break-in came in the newspapers (young people, ask the old people what those were), no one in my family (and few in the news media) had an inkling that it would eventually bring down a presidency.
Whenever the Watergate hearings were televised, they were on in my house. And so powerful was the testimony and so compelling the questioners, it occurred to a young me that it would be honorable to be a United States Senator (thanks a lot, Sam Ervin). It took fully three more decades to understand the folly of that estimation.
But by the time the hearings had done their work and shown the Nixon presidency to be the hollow criminal enterprise that it was, the summer of 1974 was over, and we all awaited what we thought would be the inevitable.
Until my 12th birthday on September 8. On that fateful day, President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor of all crimes. It was over—but so incomplete.
“He can’t do that!” I insisted to my dad, who stared, ashen, at the TV.
“Well, yes, yes, I think he can,” gulped a man who had spent the summer telling his sons that we were witnessing the wheels of democracy working toward a just conclusion.
The rest of that birthday holds no memories for me. The TV was blissfully turned off, and the house, myself included, sank into a lethargy of mourning. For at least one 12-year-old, President Ford had exercised his first and last decision of any import, and it was cast in infamy.
Looking back, of course, I can see I was a dramatic young man. But it’s hard to shake the notion that a nation’s cynicism was poured in lead by Nixon and hardened in a steaming bath by Ford.
And that’s why this week’s little news item about a DC parking garage cheered me, just a little.
At long last, a historic marker has been erected outside the garage where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met with FBI deputy director Mark Felt (code-named “Deep Throat” by a Post editor who could be pretty dramatic himself). There, amid the screech of tires and the odor of gasoline, Felt provided valuable information about the obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. That information, and what the Post did with it, underscored the belief that we are a nation of laws, and not of men.
As the nearly interminable 18-month presidential campaign rouses itself into an extended exercise in obstreperous obscurity and oppressive obloquy, I would invite each of the candidates to stop by the garage. Pause between the dog-walkers and the valet-parkers. Block out the taxi honks, and read the sign.
And then ask yourself if you aspire to the greatness that two men demonstrated in a dark, dank garage. Ask whether you care enough about a country and its institutions that you would take real risks to expose the crimes and misdemeanors of the nation’s most powerful people. Ask whether you would pursue justice doggedly and with a conviction that a democratic people deserve nothing less.
And then—and only then—return to the campaign trail.
Here’s what a former disillusioned Cub Scout thinks: A visit like that would have to make every one of the candidates more qualified for the job of President.
Hell, it’s worth a shot.Follow @azatty