There were five of them. They were experienced professionals who were good at their jobs and respected by their peers. But then, what had been going so well for so long went suddenly wrong. In the end, their lives were derailed and their boss resigned. But it was not really the end. The five and the resigned offer lessons for us all.
- The Burglary
It was two in the morning when a Watergate Hotel security guard heard noises on the 6th floor. Plain-clothed police officers soon arrested the five for attempting to rob and bug the Democratic Party’s National Headquarters. It was soon discovered that all five had connections to the CIA and one was the security chief for the Committee to Re-elect the President.
And there, on June 17, 1972, it began. As the scandal unravelled it became clear that the burglary was a blip in a pattern. And the pattern was the point.
Nixon’s press secretary once blurted that the president would not be brought down by a “third-rate burglary.” He would not. Nixon later wrote that his presidency had been ruined by a botched burglary. It was not. Along with his supporters and apologists, Nixon never understood, or perhaps admitted, that the burglary was but a symptom of the problem, an example, and not the problem itself.
- The Refusal:
All presidents’ staff know the mantra: “We serve at the pleasure of the president.” It’s true but only to a point. Nixon directed his senior staff to do things they later admitted to knowing at the time were wrong. However, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson said it was wrong, refused to do it and resigned. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckleshaus to fire Cox. He too said it was wrong, refused, and resigned.
Richardson and Ruckleshaus remembered that they served at the pleasure of the president but, more importantly, that they were responsible to their conscience and that their greater service was to the country and all for which it stood.
- The Determined
The burglary earned a tiny mention, buried deep in local papers. A couple of intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, however, would not let the story die. No matter how often or vehemently the people around Nixon and Nixon himself deflected, defended, and explained, the growing few who believed something was fundamentally wrong refused to surrender to fear or intimidation or to let it go.
The tenacious group asked increasingly pointed questions, refused to be shushed, and noted demonstrable untruths in official statements. Eventually, determination trumped stonewalling.
- The Job
Nixon never understood that he was the temporary occupant of the office and not the office itself. He forgot or never got that his primary job was not to be a crusader for policy initiatives but a guardian of the constitution and its fundamental values. Among his biggest mistakes was seeing those reminding him of his job’s fundamental function as enemies to be fought or interests to be managed.
- The Power
When the pattern of questionable behaviour was slowly revealed, Congress began to investigate and the Supreme Court began to rule. Nixon appeased but resented both. He employed the same obfuscations and delaying tactics used to fight critics and reporters. He never understood that the president is not the country’s sole authority and that power is quite rightly shared with others who are equally responsible for protecting its interests.
- The Truth
On May 22, 1973, Nixon released a long statement that contained a litany of lies. One thing, though, rang true: “A climate of sensationalism has developed in which even second- or third-hand hearsay charges are headlined as fact and repeated as fact.” He would not allow himself to see that when the truth is shaded, masked or denied, people will make up their own. And there is always a Toto Moment when the curtain is drawn.
- The Resignation
Nixon appeared on television on August 8, 1974, and became the first man to resign the presidency. He had a chance to begin America’s healing. He did not take it. Instead, from the first sentence to the last, the speech was sprinkled with the word “I”. Just like all that took him down, it was all about him. He said he was resigning due to the absence of, “a strong enough political base in Congress.” He never acknowledged his responsibility for having destroyed that political base or, for that matter, for anything else.
Nixon’s inability to see beyond himself, to truly understand the presidency, acknowledge mistakes, or to offer an apology, rendered the resignation yet another a moment of profound sadness.
- The Helicopter
The day after his resignation, Nixon climbed the steps to the president’s helicopter. He turned, smiled, waved, and, for some reason, ironically, formed his fingers into symbols of peace. He was off to his opulent California home where he wrote books and was accorded the prestige, money, and support of any ex-president. He was pardoned for his crimes.
Meanwhile, the five were imprisoned. Many of Nixon’s staff would join them. Others suffered ruined careers. After causing such havoc, shattering institutional trust, initiating a culture of suspicion, and destroying so many lives, the helicopter’s symbol was indelible – he just flew away.
- The Resilience
Fill a bucket with water. Drive your fist in, swirl it around and then yank it out. Watch how quickly the water calms. That was Nixon. The day after he resigned, fields were ploughed, classes were taught, kids climbed trees, pilots flew, fishers fished, and lovers loved. There were victims, gloomy apologists, and lost souls who had tied their wagons to the failed president but most folks just carried on.
America and all that word entails and inspires was there long before Nixon arrived and remained long after he left. The water settled. The people were warier and tougher to lead. But the place, along with and, in fact, because of the ideas, laws, and values that pumped its heart, moved on.
The whole sad affair is rife with lessons. Most important among them is that downfalls are less often about an event than a behavioural pattern. Power is divided for a reason. There are always opportunities for honourable action. A dribble of discontent can become a tsunami. Truth always wins. Failure is never an orphan and seldom absent good intentions, unintended consequences, or innocent victims. Leadership is about little else than character. Leaders lead only with the assent of the led.
And, perhaps most important of all, redemption and renewal arrive on the wings of deeply held values and that which is true to its values and visions of its founders will always endure – always.
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