Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thoughts on Watergate

My name is Krishna Patel and I anticipate earning my degree in international affairs and journalism from UGA by May 2013. I recently began working at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, and I am already hooked. The majority of my time has been spent looking through the seemingly infinite collection of documents from U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge. The collection is expansive, particularly the hundreds of boxes with constituent correspondence, dubbed the “Flexys.” Among these are thousands of letters to the Senator during his years in Washington ranging from complaints to accolades reflecting Talmadge’s work in Congress. Already a respected politician in Georgia, he earned national recognition for his work on the Senate Watergate Committee investigating one of the most infamous periods of American history.

Constituent opinions were extremely diverse in terms of Watergate—many deemed themselves a “silent majority” who supported the President while another group vehemently urged impeachment. The scandal erupted in June 1972 when five men were arrested while trying to plant a bug the Democratic National Convention offices at the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex. The White House denied all involvement and Nixon won the upcoming November election in one of the largest landslide victories in history—he had the support of every state but Massachusetts and Washington D.C.

By January 1973, events were getting heated. Two former Nixon aides were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping. In May, the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings. Senator Talmadge later joked that he was given a place on the investigative team because he was one of the handful of senators that did not aspire to the Presidency. At first Talmadge claimed the hearings failed to reveal anything of importance; in fact, he was curious as to why television stations were airing the proceedings from gavel to gavel each day. This was until the testimony of John Dean—former counsel to President Richard Nixon who revealed the names of all of those involved in the cover up. The six-hour testimony and subsequent interrogations kept citizens nationwide glued to their TV screens. Throughout the entire investigation and its aftermath, Talmadge received thousands of letters from constituents, some eloquently worded and written in an elegant cursive script, some hastily written on the back of a hotel postcard, and others typed and signed by groups of pro-or anti-Nixon Georgians. One constituent’s letter read, “Be damned forever those who contributed to the impeachment of our President Nixon.” Another admired Senator Talmadge’s work on the Watergate Committee: “More power to you as you seek to influence any who may be needing to see the light.” These letters, newspaper clippings, and other highly relevant historic materials are organized and available at the Russell Library.

The Watergate scandal unfolded against the backdrop of a grave energy crisis and economic shocks both at home and abroad as the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 had sent gasoline prices skyrocketing. Due to the impending domestic issues, many Georgians were concerned that the time and money spent on Watergate investigations were better allocated to simply making milk and other groceries more affordable. Many of Talmadge’s constituents encouraged him to spend his energies legislating rather than “hounding President Nixon.” Constituents complained of being “sick to death” of hearing about the case and preferred that Nixon be free to pursue foreign policy and energy legislation.

Another major issue was the role of the media. News outlets were highly involved in the entire Watergate affair—in fact, two Washington Post journalists were responsible for breaking the story. Moreover, all of the events were televised so that Americans could watch the Senate hearings regarding wiretapping and the role of Nixon in the cover-up. Based on my reading, reactions to the media coverage were mainly negative in the constituent correspondence. Georgians thought the media were unjustly incriminating the president and impugning him before evidence was sufficiently gathered.

The events and the corresponding historical significance of Watergate are reflected in the carefully preserved documents that make up the Herman E. Talmadge Collection at the Russell Library. They are reminiscent of an era when constituents as young as high school students took the time to write letters to their representatives. The Flexys illustrate an era when letters were stamped and posted rather than nameless online petitions and they represent an era rich in political strife, patriotism, and a changing identity for Americans. The Watergate affair marked the end to a generation that unwaveringly trusted in our country’s president and opened the floodgates to doubts and groups of fact checkers that are playing an important role in today’s election cycle. The letters contained in the Flexys represent Americans who had resounding faith in their elected officials rather than today’s suspicious breed that demands minutia like birth certificates or tax returns of its politicians. It is fascinating to sift through these documents seeped in emotions and the drama of the period—see for yourself, at the Richard B. Russell Library.

Post by Krishna Patel, student worker/blogger, Russell Library

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