Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past

Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past

Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past

Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past

Synopsis

"It began with a burglary, the objectives of which are to this day unclear, and it led to the unprecedented resignation of a president in disgrace. For years the story dominated the airwaves and the headlines. Yet today a third of all high school students do not know that Watergate occurred after 1950, and many cannot name the president who resigned. How do Americans remember Watergate? Should we remember it? To what extent does our current "memory" of Watergate jibe with the historical record? Most important, who--the media? political elites? the courts?--are responsible for the particular version of those tumultous[sic] events we remember today?" "What Americans remember (and what they have forgotten) about the most traumatic domestic event in our recent history offers startling insights into the nature of collective memory. Michael Schudson, one of this country's most perceptive observers of the media, uses interviews, press accounts of recent political controversies, and poll data to explore how America's collective memory of Watergate has changed over the years, and what this reveals about how we can learn from the past. Schudson argues that Watergate was both a Constitutional crisis triggered by presidential wrongdoing and a scandal in which investigators pursued multiple, and sometimes veiled, objectives. He explores the continuing unsettled relationship between these two faces of Watergate. Liberals who deny that scandals are socially constructed miss part of the story, as do conservatives who deny or minimize the Constitutional crisis. The book gives special attention to several key domains where the memory of Watergate has been contested and transmitted: as a myth inside journalism, as a debate over reform legislation in Congress, as a set of lessons in school textbooks, as a new language for the public at large. Schudson's findings are often surprising. He argues that Richard Nixon has not been rehabilitated in the public mind and that there is good reason to think he never will be. And he shows that the myth spawned by Watergate of an all-powerful press has proved a mixed blessing. Above all, by examining more recent events like the Iran-contra Affair, this important and insightful book documents how the metaphor of Watergate continues to influence the White House, the Congress, and the nation's political life in general. The book thus offers an original argument about how the past survives and is transmitted across generations, even in the face of conscious efforts to rewrite history." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

I have been making my way toward this book at least since I began collecting notes in 1977 or 1978 for a paper (that I never wrote) on what I called the social significance of statistically insignificant events. I was interested in the enduring effects of unique events--a traumatic experience in childhood that establishes lifelong patterns of neurotic or fearful behavior; a revolution in one country with reverberating "demonstration" effects around the world; a "horror story," true or false, in a school, workplace, family, or community that initiates and sustains new patterns of behavior that bear no apparent functional relationship to the environment at hand.

It seemed to me, as I began my professional career as a sociologist, that the social sciences had unwisely turned their collective back on history. In seeking generalizable laws of human action and systematic methods for the study of human behavior, the social sciences had studiously avoided attention to both the large explosions and the small but fateful accidents of human experience. I was not prepared to say that there is nothing but history, and I was certainly not prepared to say that history is just one damn thing after another. But I was moving toward the view that history is the record of one damn thing precluding another, the record of events moving people and institutions irretrievably in this direction and not that one.

Sometimes, I felt convinced, the direction of human affairs has little to do with the usual stuff of explanation in social science, classes or markets or political alignments, but derives instead from the simple fact that some-

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