Watergate: The long shadow of a scandal

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Forty years after Watergate, a central question about the scarring chapter in U.S. history lingers: Did Richard M. Nixon’s misdeeds and downfall strip the nation of its innocence or affirm the resilience of the American system? ¶ In one vision, Watergate turned Americans into cynical people, mistrustful of government, ready to believe the worst of their leaders. Forty years after the botched burglary on Virginia Avenue NW, the squalor of Nixon’s presidency remains visible in our paralyzed, polarized politics, our alienation, our insistent disunity. ¶ Alternatively, Watergate shines as proof that the system works, that law and the Constitution prevail over the excesses of craven politicians. The details of the scandal, which resulted in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history, may fade with time, but Watergate lives on in the idealism of those who hold government to account — through grass-roots movements such as the tea party and Occupy Wall Street, investigative reporting, and public and private watchdog groups. ¶ The principal figures in the Nixon presidency and the two-year drive to reveal its misdeeds are mostly elderly men now, and the scandal that riveted the nation like no other is barely mentioned in most high school American history courses.

But in politics, popular culture, the news media and the perception of the United States at  home and abroad, Watergate was a watershed, the beginning of an era of inspection, the end of a more deferential culture, a turning point with as powerful an impact as the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement....

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