This is part of a larger Federal Times 50-year anniversary project, showcasing the historic events from the last five decades that most shaped how government operates. Go to our special report to see more of our coverage as it rolls out in December and the first part of 2016.
After President Richard Nixon resigned on August 4, 1974, Federal Times published an editorial chiding him for that choice. By resigning, Nixon avoided impeachment by the House of Representatives and a trial in the Senate, a trial that Federal Times argued the American people deserved.
"Just as Mr. Nixon was entitled to a proper Constitutional trial, the people were entitled to all the facts, which now we may never know," the unsigned editorial reads.
"A Senate trial would have undoubtedly put more of the sleazy Presidential story on the record," it continues. "What happened under his leadership, involving the crass and unlawful invasion of individual rights, if placed on the record by a Senate trial, could have served as a basis for legislation to prevent such happenings from happening again."
Nixon resigned to escape impeachment after a botched attempted burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex started the unraveling of a wide-ranging conspiracy to sabotage political rivals. In the ensuing attempted cover-up, the Nixon White house resisted congressional scrutiny and eventually fired a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
But did it have lasting effects? The fact that the suffix "-gate" became shorthand for any scandal involving deception at high levels of power is one of many signs that Watergate rocked America. Ronald Reagan's Iran-gate, Bill Clinton's Monica-gate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge-gate are just a few examples. It also redefined government's relationship with media. As Federal TImes Editor Jill Aitoro wrote in a November column, "a certain naiveté about politics was lost among Americans, a newfound appreciation of investigative journalism emerged, and government realized that press might not be so easily contained."
But beyond that, the scandal led to a widespread distrust of government that has changed the political calculus for many issues. "The scandal continues to reverberate today throughout the political spectrum. We still live in the era of Watergate," wrote Princeton history and public affairs professor Julian Zeilzer in an essay that CNN published in 2014.
The effect has been more pronounced for Democrats, once thought to be the party likely to gain the most from the downfall of a Republican president. Because Democrats generally favor a significant role for government in national issues, they have to overcome that distrust.
"The intense skepticism surrounding the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service scandal have revealed how easy it is for opponents of government to stoke these kinds of fears," Zeilzer wrote.
The 1974 Federal Times editorial may have been unduly pessimistic. Even without a trial, the scandal raised enough public ire to allow Congress to pass several laws that had already been proposed, but which had languished without political muscle behind them, said Dan Blair, a former deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, and now president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.
Nixon's Oval Office had been equipped with a secret tape-recording system that had captured every conversation held there, which ironically provided much of the evidence against the president. The Privacy Act of 1974, while aimed more broadly at the collection and use of personal information on individuals, included provisions banning secret record-keeping systems.
Blair also credits Watergate with helping to push the passage of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, which ensures that tax returns and related information are to be held in confidence, and not released other than within the boundaries established by the section. Watergate also might have spurred the passage of the Presidential Records Act, which establishes that the official records of the president are public documents, and establishes rules for access to them.
Like Zeilzer, Blair also sees the echoes of Watergate in American politics today. The hyper partisanship that has made it difficult for recent Congresses to reach consensus or compromise on many issues can be traced back to the Watergate era, he said.
The same is true of the widespread skepticism that many Americans hold regarding elected officials and the political process.
“The trust that America had in its government after World War II dissipated,” he said.