10 of the biggest stories Washington Week covered in its first 50 years
Washington Week came on the air February 23, 1967. It was the height of the Cold War and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Men hadn’t landed on the moon. The 25th Amendment had just been ratified, and Ronald Reagan had just taken office as the governor of California.
In the 50 years that followed, we covered a lot of history-making events from the Watergate hearings and President Nixon’s resignation to the September 11th terror attacks to the unpredictable 2016 presidential campaign. The one constant for the first 50 years has been the civil, in-depth discussions of the biggest stories of the week. It started with our first moderator John Davenport and continued with Paul Duke and Gwen Ifill and will continue into the future.
Here are 10 of the biggest stories Washington Week covered in its first 50 years. This list is by no means comprehensive. What do think has been the biggest story in the past 50 years? Share in the comments below!
“A remarkable changing of the guard occurred without pomp, without precedence.” That is how Washington Week panelist Peter Lisagor described witnessing the resignation of Richard Nixon. After months of scrutiny as the Watergate controversy mired the entire administration in scandal, Nixon became the first president of the United States to step down from his post. His final speech to his staff, as Lisagor noted, was filled with “bitterness against the press,” who had played a substantial role in his downfall.
Nixon’s battle with the press even grew to include Washington Week. After reports emerged that the show might not receive funding the following year due to critical coverage of the president, moderator Lincoln Furber asked viewers to send letters to PBS expressing their support of the program. Washington Week received nearly 15,000 letters in response, many stuffed with dollar bills and small checks.
Iran hostages released
“There are times when words seem almost inadequate to describe events, and this has been one of those weeks,” Washington Week moderator Paul Duke said three days after President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. The swearing-in ceremony coincided with the release of 52 American hostages who had been held in Iran for 15 months. “The drama, the trauma, the emotion of it all,” Duke said. “It seems unreal, but it all did happen.”
The Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson recalled the scene of defeated outgoing President Jimmy Carter accompanying incoming President Reagan to the Capitol. Carter had unsuccessfully negotiated for the hostages’ release before the end of his term, and now his successor, who had dashed his hopes of a second term, would be able to claim victory. “There had never been a time when so many things came together so swiftly that bound the country together,” Johnson said. “And there we were, the old and the new.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall
“It changed the world. No one expected it to happen – even at the time. It was a long-held dream that suddenly almost surprised the world,” Peter Baker of The New York Times told Gwen Ifill while reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On Nov. 9, 1989, following weeks of protests, the Iron Curtain that had divided East and West Berlin opened, allowing free-flowing travel for the first time in over a quarter-century. Thousands crossed into West Berlin to celebrate as others chipped away at the infamous concrete symbol of the Cold War with hammers and pick-axes.
“It was a sign of something bigger. It wasn’t just about the wall. It wasn’t just about Berlin. It was about all of Europe,” said Baker, a former Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief. It would be another year until bulldozers took down the barrier that stretched nearly 100 miles. Shortly after that, talks began on the reunification of Germany for the first time since 1945. Satellite states of the Soviet Union began to declare independence, and it was not long before the USSR had fallen.
Anita Hill testimony
When Anita Hill testified before the Senate about her claims of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the country experienced “a spectacle like nothing I’ve ever really seen,” Gloria Borger said on Washington Week at the time. Hill came across as a “a careful and composed and poised witness,” moderator Paul Duke noted, but it was not enough to convince the U.S. Senate. In a narrow 52-48 vote, Thomas was confirmed as President George H.W. Bush’s pick to join the Supreme Court.
Gwen Ifill sat down for an interview with Hill in April, which marked the 25th anniversary of her testimony, and Hill said that, despite the manner in which her character was “dragged through the mud,” she would testify again. “I think it was something that was meant to happen, actually,” Hill said. “It was important, not only to the integrity of this individual, but also to the integrity of the court itself.”
Nelson Mandela’s life and death
When former South African President Nelson Mandela died in 2013, Gwen Ifill mourned the loss of “one of the most significant leaders of our time.” Released from prison after 27 years in 1990, Mandela advocated for the end of apartheid, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Many protesters around the world, including a young Barack Obama, also rallied for the end of South Africa’s institutionalized racial segregation and celebrated when Mandela became the first post-apartheid president. Shortly before his inauguration, Mandela told CNN’s Bernard Shaw, “I would like to be remembered not as anybody unique or special, but as part of a great team of this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and centuries to bring about this day.”
Monica Lewinsky scandal
“It’s one of those stories no one could have made up if we sat around and tried to write this story just for fiction,” TIME’s Michael Duffy said on Washington Week as the Lewinsky Scandal rocked the Clinton White House. President Clinton later admitted to having an affair with Lewinsky, then a 21-year-old White House intern, in the Oval Office. Clinton had previously denied these allegations during sworn testimony about a separate sexual harassment case involving Paula Jones, but secretly recorded conversations between Lewinsky and a co-worker confirmed the affair. Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House on two measures before the case was halted by the Senate, which did not reach the necessary two-thirds majority to remove Clinton from office.
September 11 terror attacks
Over 15 years later, the country still vividly remembers September 11, 2001—the day that nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives and the entire world’s sense of safety shifted. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., “Everything horrible seemed possible,” said Major Garrett, now of CBS News. September 11 marked the beginning of a new chapter in U.S. foreign affairs, launching the War on Terror, the search for Osama Bin Laden and heightened security measures across the nation. Despite the pain and loss of that fateful day, looking back on September 11 a year later, CNN’s Gloria Borger said that America had “reacted with a kind of strength maybe we didn’t know that we had.”
On March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush announced in a televised address that an invasion of Iraq had begun. The U.S. government alleged that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that overthrowing the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein would protect the world from danger. By May, the President had declared victory, having removed Hussein from power, but conflict waged on as continued attacks against occupying forces led to civil war and as public support plummeted. U.S. troops were not withdrawn until 2011, by which point hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 Americans had died as a result of the war. The week the invasion was announced, Gwen Ifill prophetically asked, “The U.S. launches its long-promised war. But is the worst yet to come?”
The rise of Barack Obama
On the second night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a newcomer took the stage. Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois delivered the convention’s keynote address, emphasizing America’s promise as the land of opportunity and inclusion. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story,” Obama said. “That I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.”
The speech stunned convention viewers across the country -- including our Washington Week panelists. “A star is born,” Michael Duffy of TIME said. The Washington Post’s David Broder added, rather prophetically, “His future is just unlimited.”
“We have to start over, and we don’t know where to begin,” one survivor said after Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Over 1,800 Americans lost their lives, while another million were displaced by the Category 3 storm. In addition to the massive scope of the tragedy, Katrina will also be remembered for the federal government’s mishandling of the recovery effort. As Gwen Ifill asked on Washington Week days after the hurricane hit, “How could this happen in America, and could it have been avoided?” Those questions haunted President George W. Bush’s administration and forever altered the lives of millions of Americans.