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The Wake of Watergate

How the lessons of Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago should matter this November

President Richard Nixon leaving the White House after his resignation.

Courtesy of The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

Forty years ago this summer, the American people witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The tumultuous midterm elections that followed brought a wave of earnest reformers to Washington such as George Miller, Chris Dodd and Henry Waxman. Accompanying them were legions of young aides determined to pursue public service by reshaping national policy. I was one of them.

Naïve and idealistic, I made the short walk up Capitol Hill from Union Station just months after the 1974 election. The world I encountered in Nixon’s wake was the source of unending fascination. I found Congress remarkably open and accessible. The passions of the civil rights and Vietnam War debates were ebbing, leaving opportunities to advance reform measures.

I sat for days on end in a stiff-backed staff chair in the Senate chamber, wedged between the desks of the stern majority leader, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and Alan Cranston of California, the tall, lanky majority whip and my amiable boss. Before long, I was in the White House Cabinet Room, watching Ford’s successor, President Jimmy Carter, sign a major nuclear policy bill I’d helped write.

From the depths of the Watergate investigations, there emerged a renewed national sense of public purpose. Activists held fast to the idea that engaged citizens could make a difference. Citizen groups emerged from the grass roots to engage legislators and help restore public confidence.

Gerry Warburg watches President Jimmy Carter sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, which Warburg helped craft. White House Photo

While 1974 was, for many of us, a time of national disgrace, it was followed by a time of national renewal. In crisis there was opportunity: Reformers of all political persuasions helped advance crucial measures, from campaign finance reform to environmental protection, from nuclear arms control to tax cuts. Centrists ruled. Budgets were adopted on time. Filibusters were rare. Issue-specific bipartisan coalitions were developed. Congress was consequential.

Forty years later, we encounter an altered landscape. Congress played the hero in 1974. Today, its approval rating hovers around 10 percent. It’s hard to identify legislators experienced in bipartisan collaboration. Compromise has become a dirty word for party leaders better versed in blocking measures than advancing agendas. Special-interest money regularly thwarts efforts to advance the national good.

But the lessons from those first months and years after Watergate include this simple promise: There is great value in public service, which can renew our messy democracy and secure centrist governance. Citizen engagement was the key in 1974.  It inspired bold, bipartisan action as voters demanded that Washington address key issues, beginning with electoral reform.

Contemplating the challenges ahead as we head into this year’s mid-term elections, that is a comforting lesson that emerged from troubled times. Informed citizen engagement remains essential. Voters should send to Congress leaders who can govern from the center, resist extremists and push for sustainable progress on consensus items. They should be willing to accept half a loaf in order to maintain momentum. Today there is no problem so great—from campaign finance and gerrymandering abuses to immigration, climate change and deficit reduction—that the power of informed, engaged citizen groups cannot overcome. It worked 40 years ago in the aftermath of one of the darkest times in American history. And it can again today.

Gerry Warburg is an assistant dean at UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the author of the recently released Dispatches from the Eastern Front: A Political Education from the Nixon Years to the Age of Obama.