(Pictured: Senators listen to testimony during the Watergate hearings, 1973.)
The break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel happened in June 1972. But if you were transported back to, say, September of ’72, and you went looking for news about it in your local paper, you’d probably wonder where it was. The scandal was a local DC story for a long time—in fact, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reputations were eventually made by their coverage of the scandal, saw their stories appear only in the Metro section of the Washington Post for months on end. To Mr. and Mrs. Average American, the scandal story was swamped by other news, including the ’72 campaign, Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection, and the ongoing struggle to end the Vietnam War.
The scandal metastasized between January and April 1973. (Not for nothing would White House counsel John Dean call it “a cancer on the presidency.”) First came the trial of the Watergate burglars and the admission by one of them that he had been pressured to perjure himself by higher officials; then the revelation that the FBI believed Dean had lied to them. With the scandal on the cover of Time magazine, on April 30, 1973, came the firing of Dean and the forced resignations of Nixon’s two top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. (Attorney general Richard Kleindienst also quit that day.) Two weeks later, Senate hearings into the scandal began. Throughout the summer and fall of 1973, what former attorney general John Mitchell called “the White House horrors” came out day by day, unspooling into the winter and spring of 1974, and to Nixon’s bitter end that summer.
Radio stations carried news on the hour and we watched network TV news every night after supper, so 13-year-old me knew all about those horrors, about executive privilege and the 18-minute gap, “expletive deleted” and “unindicted co-conspirator.” After the televised Senate hearings began, we watched them in social studies class. The hearings were historic, and I presume that our teachers believed we seventh-graders could become part of history by watching.
But no American, age 13 or any other age, was completely consumed by a sense of history unfolding. We all had our own lives to lead. Sunday, April 29, 1973, was my mother’s birthday, so there was probably some sort of family celebration, maybe dinner at a restaurant after church. If we got home in time, I certainly would have turned on the baseball game, to watch the first-place Cubs run their record to 12-and-8 with a 2-0 win over San Diego at Wrigley Field. Rick Monday’s lead-off home run in the first inning was all pitcher Rick Reuschel needed.
On the school bus 45 years ago today, I would have passed the time listening to the radio. Besides the songs I’ve already written about this month, WLS was playing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and “Drift Away,” and they haven’t really been off the radio in 45 years. “Peaceful” by Helen Reddy is better than you remember. The new Elton John record, “Daniel,” would quickly become a favorite of mine. But the song that most reliably takes me back to that spring is none of those: weirdly enough, Anne Murray’s version of “Danny’s Song” is the one that always puts me on the bus, watching the farms of Clarno and Cadiz Townships wake up after winter, and thinking about the concerns of the day, not just in my seventh-grade world but in the wider world I was becoming a part of.
We assume that kids today grow up faster than we did. But in the spring of 1973, Americans of all ages were growing up fast. We were learning that what we’d always assumed about our leaders wasn’t necessarily true—that holding high office was no guarantee of virtuous behavior, and that if the United States was going to remain a country of laws and not of men, it was necessary to take action to ensure that it would be. Forty-five springs later, the lessons still resonate.