Since Watergate Scandal, the Intolerable Is Tolerated

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, June 23, 1997 | Go to article overview

Since Watergate Scandal, the Intolerable Is Tolerated


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


The Watergate legacy may not be that the scandal was uncovered, the legacy may be a tolerance of wrongdoing in high places because Americans no longer expect honorable behavior from their leaders.

The past is not dead," says a character in novelist William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. "It is not even past." Now a quarter-century behind us, what hold does Watergate still have on Americans, what enduring legacies, at a time when the current administration in Washington works under a dark shadow of new scandals and undeniable misbehavior?

"There were changes after Watergate," says Richard E. Noyes, a political scientist at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "What we have noticed is that embedded in news coverage over the past 10 years there is a subtext and that subtext says, in one way or another, `Politicians are not to be trusted. They are cagey. They are inclined to break the rules.'"

Noyes, coauthor with S. Robert Lichter of Good Intentions Make Bad News, calls it "the default factor after Watergate." What that means, he tells Insight, is "We used to give politicians the benefit of the doubt. Now, they're presumed to be guilty -- until proven innocent. After Watergate, there is an element [of the public] that is very cynical and is no longer outraged against scandal. We're deep into that now, and we don't know how to break out of it."

The legacies of watergate not only endure, they're likely to last for some time, Noyes contends. But Reed Irvine, founder of the Washington-based Accuracy in Media, wonders if that's giving American public memory too much credit. "Watergate happened 25 years ago," declares Irvine. "It did not inure us to scandal. We are not inured to scandal." But he adds: "If we are inured to scandal it is because the Clinton administration has had so many of them and people have become bored with the details."

"Because it happened a generation ago, how many people know just what Watergate is?" Irvine asks. He may have a point. A 1986 survey found that nearly 36 percent of the high-school students polled did not know that Watergate had occurred after 1950. They placed it in a distant past, beyond memory. And more than one in five students did not know that Richard Nixon was the president involved in the scandal.

A Gallup Poll taken the following year revealed a similar lack of interest among the general public. Asked what events most formed their political attitudes, Watergate fen to eighth on the list. The Vietnam War came first, with 19.6 percent of those surveyed saying that conflict most influenced their politics, followed in descending order by the Great Depression, the Reagan presidency, JFK's presidency, the three major assassinations of the 1960s, the civil-rights movement and World War II. Only 5.9 percent said Watergate played a significant role in the formation of their political opinions.

Who, indeed, remembers Watergate? Still, Noyes' point -- and the point made by many others -- isn't that Americans recall in vivid detail the day-to-day particulars of the scandal: who went to jail, for example, and why.

It's that there is a residue of distrust and suspicion left behind that this this day sullies American politics, a residue we haven't been able to put behind us.

Social critics such as political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset see that residue as typically American and for the most part healthy. "America is the most moralistic country in the developed world," writes Lipset in his recent book, American Exceptionalism, a Double-Edged Sword. "That moralism flows in large part from the country's unique Protestant and ideological commitments. Given this background, it is not surprising that Americans ... are critical of their society's institutions and leaders."

But criticism, a natural part of democracy, becomes unhealthy when it expresses itself in cynicism and hypercriticism. …

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