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Nixon’s Great Fall Now 25 Years Gone

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Passion drew Charlotte Irons to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on a summer morning 25 years ago today, joining 3,000 other people who watched Richard Nixon step off Air Force One for the last time.

“I was not there for the same reason 95% of the people were there,” recalled Irons, 49, a former McGovern activist who lives in New Mexico. “I was there to see the king fall.”

Fall, he did.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first--and so far, only--time that an American president walked away from the Oval Office in the middle of a term. It was a national disgrace but it was also, in a sense, Orange County’s disgrace, as the area’s brightest political star flamed out amid accusations of political tricks, an illegal cover-up and abuse of presidential power.

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Fewer than half of Americans alive today are old enough to remember the national convulsions surrounding Nixon’s resignation, and the very real weight of the simple question: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

The indignity of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation still fans outrage among supporters who gave Nixon his start in politics, electing him to Congress in 1946 and then cheering him on as he moved fully onto the national stage as vice president and, finally, president.

“They still throw it in Nixon’s face, and he’s been dead for five years now,” said Jean Williams of Anaheim, who was also in the El Toro crowd the day Nixon began his San Clemente exile. “It continues to this day. They still use Nixon as a whipping boy.”

But not as often. In one sense, the shadow of Watergate has faded in the bright light of more recent scandals, from Iran-Contra during the Reagan administration to Clinton’s infidelities. The emotions are not as sharp as they once were.

“When I hear Nixon speaking on TV [on tape], I don’t feel that passion to get up and turn the knob,” Irons said. “Looking at him, it doesn’t nauseate me the way it did. I think he has gained some of his prestige back.”

That’s been the conundrum for Nixon haters. As much a yo-yo as a politician, every trip downward for Nixon was followed by an ascent.

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Despite Nixon’s red-baiting tactics early in his career, history remembers Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin as the bully of the day. After petulantly saying in 1962, after losing the California governor’s race to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., that “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference,” Nixon came back with a vengeance, winning the White House six years later.

And even after leaving the presidency in disgrace, when Nixon died five years ago he was, in the eyes of many, an elder statesman.

But not in the eyes of all.

“Unfortunately, the things we remember are the lies,” said Mary Philipp of Scottsdale, Ariz., who spent a morning last week visiting the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Philipp rates the normalizing of relations with China as Nixon’s premier accomplishment.

“He should go down as one of the best presidents we’ve had for foreign policy,” she said.

“I don’t think [Watergate] has a relevancy today, other than as a lesson in presidential morality and stupidity,” added her husband, Dr. John Philipp, citing Nixon’s political popularity at the time of the Watergate break-in and his subsequent failure to deal with the issue in what most people would consider a forthright manner. “It was so stupid, and it destroyed the man and the presidency.”

Time does not heal; it obscures. And Watergate has faded even more, according to one academic, because of its very nature: an abstract political battle that not everyone understood fully.

“Watergate was different from some of the great moments in recent American history in that very few Americans directly participated in it,” said Michael Schudson, a communications professor at UC San Diego and author of “Watergate in American Memory.” “It wasn’t World War II, when millions were in the military. It wasn’t even Kennedy’s assassination, where we all were at the funeral, essentially, through television.”

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Watergate has become what Schudson described as part of our national institutional memory, and not so much a personal memory.

“It remains sort of the mother of all political scandals,” Schudson said, adding that here and abroad the suffix “gate” has come to signify political chicanery. “It’s the benchmark against which we’ve measured every political scandal of any significance.”

The legacy can be found in public opinion polls. Two years ago, an Associated Press survey found that 25 years after the Watergate break-in, in which members of Nixon’s reelection campaign staff burglarized the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, 53% of respondents did not feel they knew enough about the scandal’s basic facts to explain them to someone else.

Yet 59% of the respondents said Nixon’s actions warranted his resignation, although 69% of them did not think Watergate was worse than Washington political scandals that have erupted since then.

Donald Segretti, who served 4 1/2 months in prison for his role in a secret campaign to discredit Nixon opponents during the 1972 campaign, believes the scandal’s role as a measuring stick grew from the “commercialization” of Watergate.

“Watergate came at a time in history where communications became so easy and interconnected and instant that it was [magnified],” said Segretti, of Newport Beach, who practices law in Irvine. “It was really the first scandal that was in such an era, and that gave it a particularly strong impact.”

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Part of Watergate’s legacy will be measured by the scandals that followed, and how they are remembered.

“There are still ardent Nixon haters, as well as supporters of the former president,” Segretti said. “More importantly, there is an entire generation for whom Watergate is not all that significant. One can’t help but wonder if the press will write this kind of article on the 25th anniversary of the voting of articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton.”

John H. Taylor, director of the Nixon library and a vocal defender of the former president, blames liberal media and educators for perpetuating images of Nixon as a fallen man--unfair and unrealistic portrayals, in Taylor’s eye.

“We don’t yet have a clear picture what happened during those years, nor do we have a fair picture of President Nixon as a president, as a man and as a commander-in-chief,” Taylor said.

“This is not to say that Nixon made no mistakes. It is to say that there is so much focus on Watergate because it is the process by which a generation absolves itself for its own excesses.”

Others, though, would argue that Watergate itself was the result of excesses. And that it underscores the argument that “there is some link between the private and public person,” said Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation magazine.

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“Nixon made his way to the top in a particularly ruthless way that left human casualties along the way, through his playing this red-baiting game,” Navasky said. “And that had to do with questions of character in a very deep and profound way that eventually expressed themselves in his conduct of public affairs.”

For Navasky, who at the time of Nixon’s resignation was managing former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark’s failed campaign for the Senate, Watergate remains relevant, even if it is momentarily overshadowed by Clinton’s recent impeachment.

“To me, the case against Clinton was cooked up--not that he should have done any of those things--and the case for impeaching Nixon was authentic,” he said. “It’s still relevant. When a president abuses his powers, then the people can prevail.”

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