In the fall of 1973, I cam home from sixth grade every afternoon to the Watergate hearings live on television. The bushy browed Sam Ervin presided over the senate investigation, and the ranking Republican Howard Baker coined the now infamous phrase, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
It was a constitutional crisis, and no one was sure how it would (or was supposed to) play out. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, presidential domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman, Attorney General John Mitchell, White House counsel John Dean, special counsel to the President Charles Colson, White House staff and ex-CIA operatives E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and the security director for the council to reelect the president James McCord were all casualties as the truth slowly came out and the Nixon administration unraveled, in spite of the president’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, (known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”) in a vain attempt to thwart the investigation. In the end, mindful of his place in history, the president resigned, rather than escalate the crisis further. It was high drama. And at twelve years of age, I was learning reams about how our constitution works.
In the aftermath, respected news analysts of the day proclaimed the entire inexorable drama a current events civics lesson, because, not unlike my sixth-grade self, most adults of the day were learning the practical application of checks and balances as the news spilled out of our TV sets into our living rooms. Sure, we had been taught about our government as students, but there was nothing like the real-life hearings and resulting firings, jailings and (eventually) impeachment and resignation of the president, to help reinforce the fact that we are not a nation of men, but a nation of laws.
The parallels to today’s investigation into the Trump administration are undeniable. As the conflict continues to escalate and tensions continue to rise, there is endless speculation as to where the special counsel’s investigation will take us, and how the president will respond. As indictments become public and sentences are handed down, we are on the verge of a new constitutional crisis, even more compelling than the Watergate showdown some forty-four years ago. No one has a stomach for this; no sane person would sign up for it. Yet here we are.
My point? No matter where the coming months lead this country (and you may be well-advised to fasten your seatbelts tightly) the American people are about to be schooled once again on the inner-workings of our government, and the intricacies of our most sacred and enduring living document, the United States constitution. In the early 1970s, there were no cable news networks, yet we had a steady diet of live coverage across all three (yes count them, three!) networks. Needless to say, there is no end to the coverage in 2018; every big news story these days gets to be overkill (why is everything “breaking news”?!). Tune it out when it adds no value and turn it off when you’ve had enough, but don’t miss the opportunity to witness history, and to benefit from our very own in-your-face American civics lesson. Because, God willing, we won’t see another confluence of events like this in our lifetime.