Thirty years after the fact, it is easy to see the resignation of President Nixon as a seminal moment in the history of the United States. But while the reverberations of the saga that moved a generation are still felt in the cynicism that marks politics today, there is a generational gap in the understanding of what exactly happened during Watergate and the significance attributed to the trauma that the nation collectively went through.
The fact that “gate” is now attached to every scandal from “Monica-gate” to most recently “Kofi-gate,” to describe the Iraq Oil for Food controversy at the U.N., might betray a lack of understanding of the events that the idiom stems from, but it also shows that today’s younger generation is relating to their own controversies and learning from them in their own way.
In a very unscientific survey, MSNBC.com spoke with a random sampling of young people between the ages of 21 and 28 recently enjoying a warm Friday afternoon in Union Square and Washington Square Park in New York City to gauge what comes to mind when Watergate comes up.
For many of those polled, Watergate is some kind of scandal that happened eons ago during their parents’ lifetime, but it’s not necessarily a watershed moment. There is an assumption that politics have always been corrupt and that Nixon just got caught.
Watergate equals scandal
“Scandal, people taking documents … Nixon resigned,” said Damon Wilson, 22, when asked about what comes to mind when he hears the term “Watergate.”
"A lovely hotel. It was where Nixon had people break-in and it led to his downfall," said Pablo Valencia, 25.
“His dog - Checkers,” sprung to mind for Julie Tibbott, 25, when she was asked about what she thinks of when she hears Nixon’s name.
Tibbott, a children’s book editor, was embarrassed that she couldn’t remember any other details of the Watergate scandal, but had to admit that her first thought when she heard the term “smoking gun” was “the website… where they post celebrity mug shots.”
Most of the young people polled had never learned about Watergate in high school, and only a few had discussed it in an American History class in college.
Not relevant today
For many, the Watergate scandal simply isn't relevant today.
“It wasn’t my time, obviously,” explained Michelle Sewrathan, 28. “I didn’t grow up with that, so what I do know has only been what I’ve seen on TV.”
In perhaps a jaded view of modern politics, Sewrathan went on to say that the Watergate scandal probably wasn’t the first incidence of corruption in government, but that Nixon just got caught.
Watergate “really isn’t important to me because as far as I’m concerned that type of corruption has always existed in government, and it probably only highlights a point when it was actually sought out and found,” said Sewrathan. “It should have been a lesson to politicians to be a little more discreet.”
Eclipsed by more recent scandals
While the Watergate crisis was drawn out over two years and the unraveling of all of the minute details of the scandal riveted the nation, that public scandal has been eclipsed by more recent revelations for today’s younger generation-- like Bill Clinton's scandal with Monica Lewinsky or the current crisis over the war in Iraq.
“Watergate is becoming the equivalent of the Teapot Dome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
But, for Jamieson, whether or not people under 30 know the details of the Watergate scandal doesn’t necessarily matter, because the central message of the crisis is that the country emerged from it intact.
“The important message is that the country weathered a constitutional crisis. The value of Watergate is in remembering that the system is durable,” said Jamieson. “A constitutional crisis was averted by Nixon’s resignation.”
According to Jamieson, since Watergate the country has survived several other constitutional crises- including Clinton’s impeachment and the dispute over the 2000 election.
In each instance the nation has survived and is stronger for having gone through it. Those more recent events have become the benchmarks for today’s younger generation.
“The audience under 30 has its own points of departure to show that the system works.”
Own issues and debates today
For many of those polled, the current national debate over the war in Iraq and the dispute over weapons of mass destruction is the nearest comparison to the Watergate scandal.
For Tanya Vazquez, a 21-year-old junior at Baruch College in New York City, a reference to Watergate in Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11” was actually all she knew about it.
"Watergate -- I saw that on TV -- think in Michael Moore's movie, I saw the building. Some people involved with Nixon -- that's all I know," said Vazquez.
Reid Beaver, 22, a recent graduate from North Carolina State University who majored in political science, pointed out that it might seem to be an exaggeration to compare Nixon to the Bush administration. But, in his opinion the notion of executive privilege, and putting the president “above the law,” started with Nixon and continues with Bush today.
Bush “tries to put himself above the law….there can be a comparison there, but I feel like Nixon was a lot better leader, than George Bush,” said Beaver who was reading "Crashing the Party” by Ralph Nader in Union Square.
Clinton’s scandal was not left out of the fray. “Clinton, that’s our Watergate,” said Sewrathan.
Legacy of Nixon
Unfortunately for Nixon, his legacy among many young people today will forever be entwined with the disgrace of resignation and the iconic image of him waving a “V” sign as he departed the White House lawn for the last time. The recent fanfare over Reagan’s funeral only served to highlight Nixon’s fall from grace and unfortunate position in the pantheon of former presidents.
Nixon’s "reputation was considerably tainted -- Reagan's funeral brought that to the forefront…he died a hush death...his reputation was irreparably tarnished," said Shannon Corliss, 23.
Tracy Chin, 24, was the only person to reference Nixon’s progress in opening up China when asked about his legacy. But she was also quick to say that you can never get away from thinking about Watergate.
For Chin, Nixon really came to prove that all politicians are corrupt and that’s the way it is. “The halcyon days are over,” she said.