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Like a rose

By Mike Ruffin Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, police arrested a group of men who had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. Thus began the scandal that became known by the name of the building that housed those offices: the Watergate. I was just shy of 14 years old when the break-in occurred. In 1973, I got to participate in a week-long government studies program in Washington. A leader of the program suggested that we subscribe to some national news magazines. I did. Before long, I was obsessed with Watergate. I read everything I could about it. I even bought a record called The Watergate Comedy Hour (featuring Jack Burns, Avery Schreiber and Fannie Flagg, among others), some of which was funny. Every time the subject of Watergate came up around our house (always because I brought it up) my father would say, ‘The president is going to come out of this smelling like a rose.’ Being a teenager, I wasn’t terribly interested in what he had to say, so I didn’t ask him what he meant. I wish I had. By the time it occurred to me that I’d like to know the answer to that and many other questions, my father had been smelling heaven’s flowers for a long time. I can think of several things he might have meant. One possibility is that he thought Nixon was innocent of any wrongdoing. Another is that he figured Nixon was smart and slick enough to find a way to wriggle out of any jam he might find himself in. Neither of those possibilities proved to be the case. And Nixon came out smelling not very rose-like. There is a third possibility: maybe my father believed that the institution of the presidency would survive so, insofar as Nixon embodied the institution, he’d come out smelling like a rose. Watergate was a great test of our institutions. The presidency was deeply wounded by the crimes of Watergate and the deeper corruption that the investigation exposed. One reason we made it through as well as we did is that the legislative and judicial branches of government stood up and did the right and necessary things. Impeachment proceedings were underway in the House of Representatives when Nixon resigned, which he did after the urging of senators from his party. The Supreme Court made it clear that the President was not above the law. And the press, while not one of the three branches of government, did its part in investigating and reporting what the citizens of our country needed to know. It seems to me that these days we are undergoing an even deeper institutional crisis than we experienced during the Watergate era. I say that because so many Americans hold our institutions in such low regard. I say it also because of the ways that our current Chief Executive publicly lambasts our institutions. Now let me be clear: we should not naïvely trust in those institutions. The people who work in them are fallible, so we should keep a close eye on them and hold them accountable. If we are realistic, we won’t expect them to smell like roses. But we can demand they not smell like stinkweed either. We must carefully walk the line between trusting and critiquing our institutions. But one of the great dangers in our current situation is the ongoing attempt by some in power and their spokespeople to delegitimize those institutions. We’re still going to have a nation after the current administration ends. Then as now, we need those who serve our nation through its institutions to do so with courage born of integrity. Let’s encourage them to do so. Mike Ruffin is a writer, editor, preacher and teacher who grew up in Barnesville and lives in Yatesville.

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