Watergate University: A Lesson in Truth

BY GORDON FREEDMAN

Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. Neil Postman, 1995

Remembering the Senate Watergate Committee, see: www.WatergateCommittee.org

Hopefully, this will provide some context for the current political tug-of-war in Washington, DC. What follows is a remembrance. Back to the time of Nixon.

The topic of Watergate brings up a recurring theme about the value of truth and truthfulness in public life. The truth, and the belief in its inherent value, connects directly to the need for an educated populace.

Through my early-life involvement with the Watergate investigation, I came to understand that a well-educated population is necessary to maintain a healthy representative system of government. Without educated voters it is difficult to make tough and necessary choices or fully understand the reasons to vote.

Schools used to teach civics. That’s gone. High schools do teach a semester of government, but most young people, even well-educated ones, seem to know little about how our system operates even though it touches many of their hot-button issues such as the environment, gender, racial and income equality.

No one knew the pitfalls of a poorly educated and uninformed electorate better than Thomas Jefferson. He was in many ways the architect of the American system of education from schools to colleges and universities. This was his preoccupation before and after he was the third President of the United States.

Prior to his presidency, as the newly elected Governor of Virginia, Jefferson introduced A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. It did not pass but it laid out a comprehensive system of public education when few thought of publicly available education. A later version of that bill did pass. In 1796, the Act to Establish Public Schools was voted into law in Virginia and years later it was amended when an aging Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819.

All through his life Jefferson was deeply worried about education and the role of the free press in keeping America’s democracy alive. As part of his concern, Jefferson felt the latest science and liberal education must be as available in the U.S. as it was in Europe, so that informed choices could be made.

Nonetheless, Jefferson was hounded by the question of education in relationship to the quality and security of the country. Hundreds of his letters and writings exist attesting to this. In 1816, he wrote one of his most memorable lines to Charles Yancey, a senior Virginia legislator, clearly stating his concern that he had worked so hard to ameliorate:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”

Yet, to be informed, two things are required: universal education to evaluate what is heard, and the freedom of the press to know what is happening so that we remain vigilant.

Two years ago, and 34 presidents later, a batch of President Nixon’s secret tapes was released by the National Archives. In one excerpt from December 1972, as the Watergate scandal was mounting in the press, Richard Nixon was with his two most trusted aides, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger and Chief of State H.R. Haldeman. Nixon had this to say about the press and education:

“Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”

Of course, in 1972 we knew little about the secret tapes or what was going on in Nixon’s White House. By late winter 1973, that changed. Watergate crossed over from a being a news story to the beginning of the Congressional investigations and what became the drafting of Articles of Impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

As the first investigation got going in the House of Representatives to examine the conduct of the campaign to re-elect President Nixon, a special select committee was empaneled in early 1973 in the Senate to investigate the 1972 presidential campaign abuses and later other abuses carried out by the Nixon White House. This became known informally as the Senate Watergate Committee. Its hearings were the singular focus of the nation for months.

By spring 1973, Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean agreed to testify at those hearings. Nixon and his chief lieutenants did everything possible prior to his testimony to discredit and threaten Dean.

At that time, in what should have been my last two years of college at Michigan State University, I could not concentrate. So, I decided to take a field trip at the end of May 1973 traveling to Washington, DC to hear Dean testify against his former boss.

Shortly after listening to Dean, I explored not returning to college and, instead, working on the Senate investigation. My parents told me to return and finish school. Luckily, the dean of my department at Michigan State said that I had to stay, that as academics he and his colleagues lived lives that were the same year in and year out. My job, he said, was to stay in Washington, have an experience that college could never provide, and bring back great stories.

By complete serendipity, I did end up with a staff position on the Senate Watergate Committee, officially known as the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which investigated Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign abuses that included, among other abuses, the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters on June 17, 1972.

That a President would openly lie was actually quite shocking at the time. Nixon dismissed the press as “out to get him.” He turned against his trusted aides, many of whom ended up in prison, and he and his remaining staff repeatedly mislead Capitol Hill investigators, “stonewalled” the investigations, and lied.

By the time in 1974 that the House of Representatives took up Impeachment, not only were campaign abuses being investigated. Also under investigation was the abrogation of Presidential responsibility and his Administration’s failure to respond to Congress’ right to gather evidence and share that with the American people, as part of the checks and balances clearly written into the Constitution.

When it was revealed in our hearings that Nixon had a secret taping system, the Committee started a protracted legal battle to get the secret tapes. In response to public, legal and press pressure, Nixon agreed to turn over some of the tapes. But what resulted was a White House version of the Nixon tapes. They were filled with redactions and some portions were whited out.

I remember clearly the day when boxes filled with huge light blue paper-bound volumes of the White House version of the tape transcripts arrived in our Senate offices, in the converted Senate auditorium where we worked. There was a hush over our cavernous office. What would be on the tapes?

We were a staff of 100 or so. Many of us were given copies of the transcripts and told to go through assigned sections and report back. It was incredible reading. The incessant swearing of the President and his aides were whited out and the words “expletive deleted” added in their place. But the truth was not in those volumes. Only Nixon’s version of it.

Nixon had won re-election by a landslide. His ratings were high. He ran a tight ship. It did not seem like much could happen to him.

Yet, revelations came out one by one and eventually Impeachment was in the air when it was clear that the President had directed the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate office building in downtown Washington. At that moment, what had been an obscuring of the truth by the country’s leader, now centered on the truth itself. There was no political spin that could change the facts.

Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974 rather than face an Impeachment vote in the House and a trial in the Senate.

I returned to Michigan late that August having had an unparalleled and unexpected education that taught me the lasting value of truth and trust as the underlying principles necessary to hold a self-governed society together, or any organization for that matter.

I had learned so much in my “Watergate University” about people, policy, choices and directions. But one thing stood out about others. The truth that Jefferson was after can only be learned through education and an open flow of news.

During Watergate, truth was still “real.” It was like a solid substance. As a young investigator, I learned how truth is investigated, determined, valued and verified. The truth, whether it comes in the form of science, solid reporting, or in the halls of government is the dividing line between chaos and order and between service and self-dealing .

Throughout my Watergate education, I carried a 35 mm camera loaded with black and white film on my shoulder. I documented in photographs the work of our staff on the Senate Select Committee. Certain truths were captured in those images.

On June 17, 2017, the 45th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building, we assembled the remaining Committee staff members, returned to the Watergate for an event, and had an open discussion about what had changed from then to now. See: www.WatergateCommittee.org

To prepare for that event, I felt it was important enough to create a website that documented the work of the Watergate Committee, including my photographs, since there was no permanent record of the Committee’s work. We even included a current news feed that shows every time the word “Watergate” appears in the press. The news ticker has been particularly active recently.

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Post Script:

On July 27, 1974, three Articles of Impeachment (Abuse of Power, Obstruction of Justice, Contempt of Congress) against President Nixon were adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives House Judiciary Committee. Nixon resigned before the House voted to formally Impeach and pass that resolution to the Senate for trail.

The charges against Nixon stated, in part:

  1. Making false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States,
  2. Withholding relevant and material evidence or information from lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States,
  3. Approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counseling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings,
  4. Interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force and Congressional Committees.

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Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.