Paul Prather: For me, Watergate was the beginning of a series of awakenings

Contributing columnistJune 23, 2012 

June 17 marked the 40th anniversary of the Watergate burglars' arrest. The significance of the anniversary has been discussed by weightier pundits than I, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker.

Nonetheless, I want to add a few observations. I came of age during that period. Watergate altered my views of government and cost me the last of my innocence. Four decades later, on the cusp of old age, I'm still a child of Watergate.

I had started life in a culture, a time and a religion that were about as sheltered as you could imagine. When I was born in southeastern Kentucky, Ike was president. My dad was a rural pastor.

Because of my dad's profession, we moved periodically. Mainly, interstate highways didn't serve the towns where we lived. Our television picked up three channels. Our neighbors and we knew little of other worlds or other ways.

Whether by law or custom, public places were segregated, and many white people, at least, thought that was how God meant things to be. We considered local Roman Catholics exotic. I never met a Jew until I went to college.

Our courthouses and schools were led by white, politically and socially conservative, Protestant men. Businesses closed on Sundays. Our counties were dry.

In school, we sang God Bless America and pledged allegiance to the flag.

We were taught that our government was benevolent and fair, that Abe Lincoln once walked miles to repay a customer 6 cents he'd overcharged, and that the police were friends we could count on to help us if we got lost.

Anybody overseas we Americans had to fight — well, they were evil, and it was our duty to keep the world safe for Christianity and democracy. Foreign armies pillaged and massacred; ours dealt justly with our enemies and handed chocolate bars to their children.

I never questioned any of this. The adults said it was so, and thus it was. I lived in a cocoon, a happy cocoon if you were a white, middle-class schoolboy.

But step by step, over 10 or 12 years, my beliefs were dismantled. We were isolated, but no one existed in so remote a place as to escape the tumults of the 1960s and 1970s.

When I was 7, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Walking back to my second-grade classroom from the hallway water fountain, I overhead the principal whisper to my teacher, "The president's been shot."

Next came the civil rights movement. Often the television blared as my family ate supper, and I remember watching grainy footage of police attacking unresisting marchers.

I couldn't understand what was going on. Weren't the police our friends? Were "colored people" (the term then in use) bad? How?

Then the horrors from Vietnam arrived on TV, too. I watched massive college demonstrations against the war. At 12, I saw the police themselves riot against anti-war protesters in Chicago, bashing heads for no apparent reason.

That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered.

At My Lai, it turned out, some of our soldiers hadn't given candy bars to Vietnamese kids, but coldly mowed them down with M-16s. Magazines sold at our corner drugstore carried gory photos of the carnage.

The Pentagon Papers exposed the systematic falsehoods and obfuscations the public had been fed to gain support for a questionable war.

And then, in my last couple of years of high school: Watergate.

The president of the United States turned out to be not a hack or a dissembler, but a law-breaking, amoral, paranoid demagogue.

As the revelations of Richard Nixon's plots, ravings and crimes emerged, some of my buddies, parroting their parents, would say, "Nixon's not so bad. He didn't do anything all the rest of them haven't done."

I found that cold comfort. So other presidents were felons, too?

Later, as the subsequent Watergate books came out, I devoured them: Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, memoirs by Nixon's gang of hooligans — John Dean, Chuck Colson, G. Gordon Liddy.

They all bore the same lesson: Your public guardians might well be your worst enemies. The stories and principles I'd been taught as a kid? Myths.

The national debacles of that era demoralized me. If you couldn't trust the police or the military, if you couldn't even trust the president, who could you trust?

Many people my age reacted to Watergate and those other events with a collective shrug. But others of us, perhaps too sensitive for our own good, were transformed into entrenched skeptics.

Some veered hard to the right. When I see today those angry, portly, gray-haired guys holding forth at Tea Party rallies about government lies and corruption, what I hear are 17-year-olds who never recovered from Watergate.

Some veered equally hard to the left. They're sure a diabolical right-wing cabal runs the nation. Some dropped out of the process altogether.

I didn't do those things. But I became an incurable contrarian. When the Democrats are in power, I root for the Republicans. When the Republicans get in, I can't wait to vote them out.

Getting disabused of your childhood notions is part of growing up. You quit believing in the Easter bunny and move on. That's healthy.

But those of us who came of age during the Watergate years experienced an unusually brutal series of awakenings, of which Watergate itself was the capstone.

Its legacy is that a big portion of us find ourselves unable to extend faith toward our leaders. When those who rule choose to rule corruptly, they tear that very fabric of which a republic is sewn: faith in the system. And it stays torn.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. Email him at

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