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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Watergate and My Life

            Forty years ago this past Sunday, a momentous historical event occurred. I graduated from college. If memory serves, there was also some sort of third-rate burglary in Washington, D.C. that morning.
            News of the burglary was on the radio when we woke up that day but at the time no one thought much of it. Even the Nixon haters didn’t think he’d do something that criminal or that stupid. It was probably the only time they underestimated their man.
            It’s not uncommon for people to feel their lives are inextricably connected to some historical event. For my parents’ generation it was likely to be the Great Depression or World War II. In my generation it was likely to be the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, or, as in my case, Watergate.
            One of the things I was in a position to see first-hand was the impact Watergate had on the business of journalism. After graduating from college, I began applying for newspaper and radio reporting jobs with a resume that consisted of a bachelor’s degree in English and a few clips from my college newspaper. In six weeks I got several offers and ended up at a highly regarded daily newspaper in coastal California.
            A decade later, after All the President’s Men had been a bestselling book and top-grossing movie, a lot of smart kids wanted to be newspaper reporters. By then I was doing the hiring, and many of the resumes I was looking at featured a lot of master’s degrees in journalism from some of the best journalism schools in the country. Anyone trying to get into the business with a background like mine would likely have been job-hunting for months before landing at a weekly paper in rural Nebraska.
            In the first couple of years at the newspaper, I absorbed the business at several levels. Being new, everything I covered — even a routine water board meeting — was exciting. There were a lot of non-routine stories locally, as well, including several horrifying mass-murder cases that are remembered to this day. And in the background, Watergate was moving toward its conclusion.
            We were an afternoon paper then, with a news deadline of noon Pacific Time, or 3 p.m. Eastern. Much of the news coming out of Washington was fresh when we published it, and we had it to our readers an hour or more before the evening news came on TV. We in the newsroom were the first in town to know the latest developments in Watergate.
            Because the story completed itself so completely with President Nixon’s resignation, many people who lived through it now think of it as a whole. I don’t. What I remember about Watergate was how it came out one piece at a time — a steady drip, drip, drip of shocking revelations. Just when you thought you’d heard the worst, something else came along to top it.
            The news came over the wire from United Press International (now gone), and whenever there was a big story, the wire machine bell would ring several times. Most of us would drop what we were doing to run over to the machine and read the first couple of paragraphs of the story.
            Watergate solidified my commitment to the news business as it poisoned the politics of the country. It’s unlikely that there will be any major new revelations after all this time, and kids today hardly know the tale at all. But whenever I hear the word Watergate, I think of bells ringing in the newsroom, and for a few seconds, my blood runs a bit more quickly.