JIM LEHRER: Now, the Watergate legacy from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson; joined by two congressional participants in the Watergate saga: Former Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who was vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, and Congressman Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, who served on the House Judiciary Committee, which voted the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Haynes, how would you explain the importance of Watergate?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: I think it was the most important moment in national history for the political system in this century, Jim. And if you think back 25 years ago when it began and two short years later, that tumultuous two years when Richard Nixon was forced to resign on the threat of impeachment, and he did so, that night--I will never forget as long as I live--you had a sense that every part of the system worked. The press did its job. It didn't solve the case or anything like that. The judges did their jobs. The grand jury did its jobs. The committee, Congress headed by people like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin did their jobs, and the public did its job, and the House Impeachment Committee did--with nobility and seriousness of purpose and the contrast today, 25 years later, when people have so much doubt and despair and cynicism about the way it works, we all remember that it did work in every element. That doesn't mean we don't have problems now, but that's what I think was important.
JIM LEHRER: Is that the most important thing, Senator, do you agree?
HOWARD BAKER, Senate Watergate Committee: Well, I think so. I think it was, indeed, a watershed time in American politics. And I guess I have to look back on it to realize how effective the system really was, but--
JIM LEHRER: You didn't feel that at the time?
HOWARD BAKER: No, I really didn't, but, you know, I was so caught up in the whole thing that I wasn't thinking ahead to consequences, and frankly, I was surprised when Nixon resigned. I had not thought it would come to that. I really didn't think it was going to come to impeachment. We were just tightly focused on trying to find out what really happened, but it did prove, I think, that the system worked. I think the system is stronger for it having worked, but it changed a lot of things in the system, in the country, in the press, and people's attitudes.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what would you say if you had to list--give us your short list of the things you think it changed.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, in some ways the irony is, though, that even though I agree that in many ways it was the success of the system, especially in the sense that here you had a President who had been elected by a landslide giving the office over to Mr. Ford, who hadn't had a single vote because he was an unexpected vice president, and, yet, there was no transition problem, the Marine band played for Mr. Ford as the new President. So it was a test that our system passed, but, in retrospect, I think what's happened as the result of that, rather than feeling good about the system, has been a great disillusionment. The combination, I think, of Vietnam, the credibility gap under Lyndon Johnson, and then Watergate, plus the three assassinations in the 1960's, means that we had a whole generation who grew up never knowing good things about government. What they knew are these crises, this sense of disillusionment, the fact that a President could be corrupted and have to resign from office, and they never knew that kind of idealism that the 60's had generated in that younger generation. The whole role of the press changed. They became investigative reporters, with Woodward and Bernstein as their heroes, rather than White House correspondents in the old days. The campaign finance thing changed. I mean, everything changed, and the net result was really looking at government in a more negative way and feeling a sense of disillusionment, rather than saying, yeah, the system worked.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What were you saying, Charlie Rangel, yeah, the system worked, or, oh, my goodness?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL, Judiciary Committee (1971-1974): I was saying both. I was scared to death. I did not know the confidence or the strength of the Constitution. It really proved that we are strong people, a strong nation, and that document really works. And also I think the negative side is that the private life, private conversations of public officials, things that would never happen with Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Johnson, did happen with Nixon, and now I think there is a real different standard and a very low standard, I might add, of journalism feeling that they can do anything, which is low as the imaginary stories that are sometimes created by the supermarket papers, but the two year term is the one that really impressed me. Everyone, including me, thought that we needed more time in the House of Representatives, but after the Senate's televised hearings and the House Judiciary started televising those hearings, Tip O'Neill, the speaker at that time, came to our committee, and he said, the American people want you either to impeach the President or get off his back, and we're not going to have the House of Representatives pay the price at election time because you people aren't doing your job. And every weekend members would come and say, what's going on, and do your job and do it right, and do it without fear, but get on with it.
JIM LEHRER: Did you have some private fears that you couldn't pull it off, that the thing wasn't going to work, that the system was shaky, and something was going to give somewhere along the line?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: Yes, but it wasn't because of anything that members were telling me was happening in their district or my constituents were telling me. It was eavesdropping on those White House conversations. We have a tendency in this country to believe those in high places are different than our next door neighbors, but to hear the President of the United States, the great spokesman, President Nixon, drinking and laughing and cursing and swearing, and here he is a world leader, but on the question of common theft and robbery -- he had nickel and dime values. And the people around him were frightened for themselves but also frightened for the nation. So when you hear General Haig saying what could happen in America if, indeed, the President was impeached, believing that they may have known more than I, it became frightening, but it really did show the American people are tough people, and they do believe in government, no matter what they say about it.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Do you agree with that, Michael, that it showed that the American people really do believe in their government, at least at that moment?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I'm not so sure, to tell you the truth. I think that Watergate, as an investigation that got this President out of office, that was a great triumph. Nixon had lied. He had violated the law and the Constitution, and the system did work in removing him from the White House. The problem is that Watergate took something out of the presidency that I don't think has ever come back and perhaps never will. When I was growing up in the 1960's and early 70's, the President was someone that you held up as a model for everyone. Parents would say, you know, you should bring up your children to be like the President. The President is someone who basically tells the truth. There were exceptions to that in the 1960's, but that pretty much remained until 1972 and 1973. For two years we heard Richard Nixon over and over again saying, "I had no involvement in the Watergate cover-up. This is the simple truth." Then we heard those tapes showing that that was an absolute lie and that this was someone who had violated the law. Ever since, to some extent, Presidents have been almost guilty until proven innocent. And to one extent or another, every President since Richard Nixon has been overshadowed by at least the possibility of a political scandal, sometimes used by their opponents. The presidency as a result is a weaker office, and it certainly doesn't have the moral authority that it once had before Richard Nixon came there.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: I think the press has a lot to do with that. The press would not think about asking the questions of a Roosevelt and a Kennedy and a Johnson, and to think that today they're reporting allegations made that people know identifying remarks on the private parts of the President of the United States, those things are so disgusting that it's hard for any public official to be respected when the press really says that they're not entitled to any privacy.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Baker, how do you feel about that? Has the presidency been permanently changed as a result of this? Do you agree with Michael?
HOWARD BAKER: Well, I do agree with Michael that it has changed. It is in the wake of Watergate and causally directly connected. But I don't think it's permanently changed. I think the real brilliance in the system, not to be overly philosophical, is that is so flexible and changes so much with circumstance of time that it adapts. And I think we'll adapt, and I think we'll have other Presidents who are national symbols, as well as great leaders. But there's one thing I'd like to add about whether or not we proved that the system really worked. Indeed, I think it did. But you know what I really think is that we proved the strength of the American political instinct. The American people decided how they're going to handle this thing.
JIM LEHRER: How did they decide? How did the people decide?
HOWARD BAKER: Who knows? But they did as a collective judgment. There's a collective wisdom in the country that says, yeah, this is the way it's supposed to be; we're sorry that this has all happened, but Jerry Ford is President, and we revere him for that. They went on with the political system. I spent 1974 traveling around the country, campaigning for Republicans, trying to convince the country they shouldn't blame the party. But they did blame the party, and we were turned down in wholesale numbers. But there's an old saying that, obviously, the American people are sovereign. They really make the final judgment. The saying is you can doubt the sovereign's judgment, but you can never doubt the sovereign's authority. Now, the American people decide how this is going to work. They decided during Watergate they had more to do--their native instinct for self-governance had more to do with us transitioning out of that time to a better time, without anything else, except the charter document.
JIM LEHRER: Because the way the public reacted to each step along the way? In other words, there was support when the press was doing thing, and there was support when your hearings came on; there was support from then to the very end, and they supported the resignation of the President.
HOWARD BAKER: It was not altogether intellectual exercise. It was sort of--it was sort of an empathetic understanding of what "we have to do as a country." People did it.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Haynes, the press, Charlie Rangel's mentioned it several times and others have, that some people would say it was a great moment for the press but that others would say now it created this whole tribe of little Woodwards and Bernsteins trying to bring down Presidents ever since. Where do you come down on that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think they're right on both counts. (laughing) I mean, I think that--I think we started out--it was a magnificent cask of journalism by a couple of reporters who were just kids--weren't even known inside the White House, had no celebrity status--
JIM LEHRER: They were barely known at the Washington Post.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And the Washington Post, exactly, and all of that, and I think they did exactly what reporters are supposed to do, painstakingly seeking after fact after fact. The stories were not elegantly written, but they were just there day after day, and the paper was--I was very proud to be associated at that time. It published them. But since then it has spawned something else that we're all kind of talking about, and this, this notion of destructiveness that we've had 25 years now of one gate after another -- Peanutgate, Irangate, you know -- all the way through Iran--and right all the way into the present period where in the Clinton period it's just one after the other, and so the--appellation attached to it makes it all seem as if the political system is corrupted, and it also does influence those who think the way to make it is to get somebody. And I think that's the legacy that is very difficult in the climate we're now operating in.
JIM LEHRER: Would you buy that, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what got off track is--and I think it was a very healthy thing to have the rise of this investigative reporter--when you look at Roosevelt's time and when his health was so damaged in that last year of his life, there were no investigative reporters to tell the country this man was dying. We still might have voted for him anyway, but we should have known that. But then what happened is that everybody wanted to go to journalism school and become Woodward and Bernstein; they attached their investigation to the private lives of our public figures. And they didn't have any relevant question as to whether those private lives had an impact on their leadership. So we started searching behind bushes for Gary Hart and his woman. Now we're in this adultery morass that we should never be in. So that the changes in the culture that had devalued privacy got attached to the newspapers. So it's not just spawning public scandals, which may be a good thing to spawn, but it's spawning this private investigation that I think has taken us down a terrible train. The only hope is maybe to go back to what Sen. Baker said. I have a feeling that the instincts of the public are beginning to tire of this stuff. And if they do, then the press might pull back a little bit. You never think it can go back in the bottle--the genie--but maybe it can; hopefully, it can; and we can respect that private lives still matter in our society.
JIM LEHRER: You're nodding. You think you can put this back, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do. And history tells us it can. You know, there's always a cycle and the pendulum always swings back. And I think the most hopeful thing is that people after a while will begin to reach the saturation point and think that they are learning too much, and perhaps it is driving down the currency of a society, and they'll demand to know, I think, perhaps more substantive things about their leaders. But at the same time this is all a reaction to the fact that before Richard Nixon, perhaps the press was not investigative enough, perhaps was not intrusive enough. If we had known a lot more about Richard Nixon's character and even some of his private decision-making in 1968 and 1972, when he ran for election, that second term, if we had known more about Watergate, 61 percent of the American people would not have resoundingly sent him back for a second term.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Rangel, what affect has it had on you and others who offer yourself for public office, Watergate?
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: Well, I've been in public office since the invention of water, so--(laughter among group)--there's really nothing that I can do. But I know one thing--that I would never encourage my son or anyone that I love to go into this without thinking that their private life will be exposed--not so much their own--but their children and their wives. I mean, what President Clinton is going through for something that happened years ago--and yes, I blame the press, but we all are just so susceptible to gossip and hearing things that we shouldn't hear. It was the Watergate tapes--you know, we didn't have to know that our President was a drinking, common man, and thinking about these common criminal things--it doesn't help us. It doesn't help America to fly a bomber that from here on in any promotions that you get in the military we have to review ten, fifteen, twenty years back as to whether you committed an indiscretion. So as far as I'm concerned public life--and I've had the best of it--and I've enjoyed it--and I've never been a victim of anything bad in the press, so I don't have any personal feelings against it--but it's just not fair to those who want to serve to go through what happens at these hearings in the Senate, and I think--and I don't see how it can be repaired, because people like to know things that they shouldn't know, and it becomes a part of the job, and it's not worth it.
JIM LEHRER: Is it a good part of the life now, Senator? Is it part of being a public figure, part of being in politics--are we all part of something that we can't change?
HOWARD BAKER: No. I think we can change it. But I think the country will change it for us because I agree with Doris, I guess, who said that the country may be sort of--
JIM LEHRER: Sick of it?
HOWARD BAKER: --super soaked with all this. I respect Charlie, and I've been friends a long time, but I want to disagree on this. If I were giving advice to my son and daughter, which I'm not--they've long since outgrown that--I would say, look, you know, consider public service. I think it's the highest secular calling you can engage yourself in. And it's just tough as it can be. But I--you know, my greatest fear is that all of this, whether it's press or the Watergate experience, or whatever it may be, that young people be so turned off that the right ones won't try to serve--not their whole life maybe but for a while. I think that's almost an obligation.
JIM LEHRER: One of our senior producers, Jeff Brown, in discussing this at our editorial meeting, said, "I was 18 years old when Watergate happened. That was my first awareness of the government of the United States." And it affected the way he thinks about government.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think--
JIM LEHRER: What would you--what would you say to him, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, I would say that the other part of it is suppose you are a person who grew up with World War II as your dominant experience, or the Civil Rights movement of the late 50's and the 60's, and that says that government could be a positive force to move society forward toward justice, to defeat the Nazi power. I mean, it's a cycle that it's true. This generation has not seen that other side of government. It's still inherent in human nature. We still have people who could be great leaders. You've got to believe that. You've got to believe in that kind of resiliency. And some good things did come out of Watergate. I think what we're forgetting, those campaign finance reforms that took place as a result of Watergate have allowed us to know publicly what people are doing much more than we ever knew before. I think even though there's more scandal now because we know more, it's cleaner than it probably was ever before. So you've just got to tell a young person, yes, it does seem like we've gone through a trough, but there's a basic resilience in human nature. I keep believing, as you all know, that the Red Sox will win the World Series someday. I've got to believe in our country, too.
JIM LEHRER: Your a case all in of your self! (laughter)
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: Can I revise my statement?
JIM LEHRER: Sure --
REP. CHARLES RANGEL: I should have added that I would have hoped that my son, who I love so much, would not take my advice. I would be so proud of him if he did enter public service. And I do encourage people to do it, but when there's--when I start talking about the dangers in invasion of privacy, it's then that--I'm not proud of myself -- but I just wonder about it.
JIM LEHRER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I was reminded that one of the witnesses in the hearings, a young man named Gordon Strong, was--someone who got caught up in the Nixon administration's experience in Watergate--was asked, "What advice would you give to other young people, given the fact that you've been through this trauma?". And he said, "The advice I would give them is stay away from government." And I remember even at the time thinking that was in such counterpoint to the idealists who worked for John Kennedy, or the people who sailed balloons for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. That has really not lifted from us. The other perhaps unintended consequence was that we for two years in Watergate had a big display of what can happen to government and leaders if they are untrammeled, and bizarrely enough, that, to some extent, opened the way for some of the anti-government of the conservatives in the late 70's and the 1980's, because their argument was government is an evil that has to be limited. And those ideas began to connect and so Watergate had an unintended consequence that perhaps we didn't see at the time.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, finally, what would you advise young people about journalism as a result of--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Best job in the world. I'm serious about that, if the job is to try to determine the truth, and you go after it, and you do it fairly, and you try to do it fairly, and you shouldn't be opening the doors and looking. I mean, there's a division between private and public that shouldn't be there. But the enormous opportunity to try to explain our country to each other I think is even more important in today's world for journalists.
JIM LEHRER: And you would say Watergate, that part of Watergate--
HAYNES JOHNSON: That was the good part. That was the way we should do it.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, we'll leave it there. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much.