Gazette's take on Watergate echoes through our Trumpian times

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For some odd reason, I’ve been thinking about Watergate.

It could be that we find ourselves at another big moment when congressional grillings are must-see TV and talk of presidential obstruction of justice is capturing the national conversation. And of course, Lordy, we hope there are tapes.

Sure, there also may be comparisons to be made to Iran-Contra and the Clinton impeachment, After all, the severity of our current affair seems to depend on what your definition of “hope” is.

But it’s Watergate that seems to be having its 15 minutes of flashback.

So I was curious how The Gazette’s editorial pages handled the twists and turns four-plus decades ago.

Like today, our op-ed page was more likely to carry editorials on state and local issues, such as a 1972 Cedar Rapids cable franchise vote. But with the front page back then dominated by national and international news, The Gazette weighed in more often on those developments than we do now.

And then, like now, readers complained about unsigned editorials. A 1973 editor’s note pointed out that most editorials were written by editorial writer Jerry Elsea, editorial page editor Art Heusinkveld and associate editor Frank Nye. J.F. Hladky Jr., editor and publisher, managing editor Jack Illian and telegraph editor M.M. Thompson Jr. rounded out the editorial board.

In other ways, it was a very different time. I came across letters decrying the “Sick” decision to screen Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” at a local theater and lamenting the fate of a local woman compelled to lose 20 pounds before she could be employed.

A May 1973 column on female journalists fighting sexism carried the headline “Petite, Perky and Peeved Newsgals in revolt.” Yikes.

Another letter questioned the need for “women’s lib.” See perky and peeved above.

But like today, The Gazette endorsed candidates. And on Oct. 16, 1972, with the Watergate saga slowly gathering steam, we endorsed President Richard Nixon. But we were hardly excited about it, noting that an “A1, great, heroic candidate” would not be appearing on the ballot. Sounds familiar.

“In what for all practical purposes is the usual two-party contest, we will have to choose instead between two sub-divine figures, Richard Nixon and George S. McGovern,” The Gazette opined, arguing that Nixon’s first-term accomplishments more than counter-balanced his weaknesses, including the “Watergate affair.”

A column running the next day pointed to a Gallup poll showing only 52 percent of voters had heard of Watergate and only one in three could describe key facts. An early October column mentioned a voter who described her choice as between a “crook and a fool.” She would vote for the crook, who won in a landslide.

By May 1973, Watergate was a televised spectacle gripping the nation. The Gazette weighed in on Nixon’s attempts to explain his role.

“But rising from the who-said-what and the who-thought-what and how-it-looked sensations of the Senate’s nonjudicial probe, the Nixon explanation necessarily seems less than fully candid even now: strained, forced, less than voluntary, pressured by expedience,” The Gazette editorial argued.

“Bad as any Watergate-type situation is, it can only get worse when left to hopes of burial and blow-away,” The Gazette wrote.

A letter published in May 1973 hit back at a national columnist who blamed “disgruntled reporters.”

“Any individual who objects to the press coverage of Watergate is objecting to the American people’s right to know on any subject where sources of information are not available by our own personal involvement,” the writer argued.

In July 1973 came the bombshell dropped by Alexander Butterfield, a former presidential appointments secretary, that Oval office conversations and phone calls had been taped.

As Nixon balked at releasing those tapes, The Gazette asked many good questions.

“How could any power-separation override in value and importance an immediate and clear determination as to whether the president of this country is involved in a serious crime?’ The Gazette asked.

“How can power-separation override, in the simplest terms, the importance of public respect for the presidency of the United States? What is more important than that principle of government?”

In October 1973 came the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and abolished his office, prompting the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.

“Full disclosure of the Watergate tapes would be compelling evidence if the innocence or guilt of the president were the only mystery to be cleared,” The Gazette wrote. “But the candid conversations possibly would show the involvement of other White House personnel, past and present, in the Watergate scandal.

“The president’s unreasonable holdout nourishes the suspicion that personal stakes far outweigh his concern over the preservation of executive privilege,” The Gazette’s editorial contended.

By August 1974, the tapes were out and the gig was up. In an Aug. 7, 1974, editorial titled “End of the trail,” The Gazette hoped for a swift Nixon resignation to spare the nation an impeachment spectacle.

“Both to Mr. Nixon and the public, resignation’s path holds lesser probabilities of hurt and loss. He should resign and have it done,” The Gazette urged.

On Aug. 8, 1974, The Gazette’s editorial board got its wish. Nixon called it quits on national television. On Aug. 9, The Gazette’s editorial carried the headline “Nowhere to go but up.”

“Cold type will record it for prosperity. But personal experience and feeling etched it into memory for all who lived the moment,” The Gazette opined.

“But the overriding sense now on the sidelines has to be relief. That finally the dismal days are almost done. That disarray is passing and new leadership, respectable and strong, can pick the pieces up and set them straight.

“Everybody brushed by history as we have been now owes it to himself and to us all to share in working out the repairs so no one in our system has to live through this again,” The Gazette wrote.

Admittedly, our current Trumpian knot is no perfect Watergate match, at least not yet. But we do have a much less than fully candid president, expecting us to believe strained, forced and less than voluntary explanations. We have his partisan allies doing all they can to bury and blow-away, hiding behind “hope” and blaming the media. A presdient’s inner circle is under scrutiny.

Maybe there are tapes, and maybe not. But just substitute hidden tax returns, and we’ve got a president clearly intent on putting his personal stake before the public’s right to know. Respect for the presidency once again hangs in the balance. Polls suggest it’s already being steadily shredded.

We’re again living through dismal days of disarray. Lordy, I hope we can pick up the pieces and set them straight again.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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