Boomers Remember the First “…Gate” — Watergate

There are seminal moments in the life of boomers that conjure vivid memories: John Kennedy’s assassination; Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon; and the Watergate hearings, to name a few. Fifty years ago this week, on June 17, 1972, burglars were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. The story of corruption, abuse of power and ultimately, the cover-up, unfolded before the eyes of the country in a series of televised Senate hearings examining the Watergate scandal.

Every boomer recognizes the names involved: John Dean, John Ehrlichman, E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, and of course, Richard Nixon, immediately come to mind. There has been much written through the years about Watergate, not to mention movies and TV interviews. Now at the fiftieth anniversary, there is another avalanche of recollections emerging about the original crime and subsequent cover-up that resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States. Mister Boomer writes about boomers and their way of life in the three decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and makes no claim to being a historian. What is important to Mister B at this auspicious anniversary is how boomers absorbed the historical happenings then, and whether their mindset was in any way influenced by these events in the years that followed.

Mister Boomer was a college student when the Watergate hearings were aired. He did watch some of them on TV, but mostly got his information from the daily newspaper. A running account in an ongoing series of articles summarized each of the hearings and latest revelations. Of course, there was also the evening news with Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor or Walter Cronkite.

People sometimes forget that the time span from the arrest of the Watergate burglars to Nixon’s resignation was just over two years. Many months passed to digest the information that exploded in the public realm from the White House, the Senate hearings and reporters, most notably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post.

To a young Mister B, the parade of names involved in Watergate was difficult to keep track of, but it was evident as individual criminal trials went on that the whole thing was a conspiracy, not merely an office break-in. Most of the boomer males in Mister B’s circle were opposed to every U.S. president since the beginning of the Vietnam war on principal, for the simple reason that they feared getting drafted. Nonetheless, many particularly relished the resignation of Richard Nixon as the culmination of events that began fifty years ago.

What did Watergate mean to your mindset then and now, boomers? Did it shatter your trust in government — as President Gerald Ford attempted to address in the aftermath — and reinforce suspicions that the President of the United States was, despite his pronouncement to the contrary, a crook? Or did it restore your faith in the ability of the government’s watchdogs to hold people in our highest offices accountable?

Boomers Watched Presidents Make Their “Big Ask”

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last week, it may have seemed like deja vu all over again for boomers. The reason for this is very simple; every president during the boomer era has addressed Congress with an ambitious agenda that amounted to a “big ask.” Indeed, suggesting legislation is a main part of the job and a good part of why we elect presidents. See if you remember this portion of our shared history, now that decades have passed and we have had the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their effect on our lives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower — National Interstate Highways
For many people, Eisenhower’s signature legislation was the building of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower officially introduced his proposal to Congress on February 22, 1955. A year later Congress allocated $26 billion for the construction of the 40,000 mile system of interconnected highways. Construction began in 1956, but wasn’t completed until 1992, so the budget had ultimately ballooned to more than $115 billion.

President John F. Kennedy — Man on the Moon
The Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. The U.S. soon matched Soviet orbiting satellites and established a manned space program. In 1961, Kennedy upped the ante by stating the goal of sending men to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He addressed Congress on May 25, 1961. Project Mercury was already two years old, and only two weeks earlier on May 5, Alan Shepard took the first U.S. manned sub-orbital flight. In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. With these initial steps, the President asked Congress for $7-9 billion to be added to the Space Program over five years. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

President Lyndon B. Johnson — Medicare
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had tried to pass a form of healthcare legislation specifically for senior Americans, but failed in committees. President Kennedy was working toward being the third president to introduce legislation, but was assassinated before he could do so. President Lyndon Johnson picked up the task and in his State of the Union address on January 4, 1965, revealed his plan for Medicare. Congress dedicated $2.2 billion dollars to establish the program, and Medicare became part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Johnson recognized Truman as the “real daddy of Medicare,” so on July 30, 1965, he signed the bill at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. On hand were former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. President Johnson personally issued the first and second Medicare cards to them.

President Richard M. Nixon — The Environmental Protection Agency
Most people point to the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as the alarm that raised public awareness for environmental concerns. It had become evident that pollution of our air, water and land had become a major problem. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin accompanied then President John Kennedy on an 11-day trip in September of 1963 to raise awareness on pollution and environmental issues. (Nelson later was the founder of Earth Day.) Congress acted on the growing public sentiment for clean air, water and land management with the Clean Air Act of 1964. They passed additional bills over the next four years addressing national pollution problems.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. Then eight days after he was sworn in as President in January of 1969, there was a rupture on a Union Oil platform off the coast of California at Santa Barbara that spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 60-mile oil slick covered beaches, devasted the local fishing industry and destroyed habitat for marine animals. The American people were horrified.

Congress reacted with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Nixon was not on board at first, but voters were all for some environmental protections, so two months after the Union Oil disaster, he signed the bill. Prior to 1960, the Republican Party was seen as a big supporter of environmental issues, especially relating to farm land management and wildlife conservation. Now, with an increasing number of bills concerning the environment, more than 40 agencies were tasked with enforcing the new laws. After much consultation with his colleagues and aides, Nixon signed an executive order in June of 1969 establishing the Environmental Quality Council to oversee environmental issues.

Now with public sentiment behind him, and having been convinced that the environment would be a big issue in the upcoming election, on July 9, 1970, Nixon asked Congress to set up an agency that would consolidate and control all environmental issues with his Reorganization Plan No. 3. Nixon requested additional money for combating current pollution, including money to upgrade the country’s water treatment plants. His total ask was just over $10 billion. Congress passed the bill and on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations.

The moral of the story for boomers is, we’ve been here before. The presidents during the boomer decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s all requested large-scale legislation from Congress. As time has passed, most historians agree that the positives for the American people acquired through these boomer-era programs have outweighed the negatives.

Do you remember these historical events, boomers?