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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ruckelshaus on Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre

Just shy of a decade into teaching constitutional law, I find that the biggest problem with the passage of time is not, despite my last post, keeping up with changes in the law. Nor is it concern over dul(l)y reciting the same jokes every year because they're in the script; I still find that line about the Salt Lake City Olympics hilarious. It's the way that events that were once utterly fresh and familiar to students have faded. It used to bring down the house when I read Michael McConnell's opening paragraph from his piece about Marbury v. Madison in the Constitutional Law Stories!  No longer.  And Justice Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson remains a great read, but students are not quite as impressed by its apparent prescience in light of the Clinton impeachment.

I say all this by way of linking to this terrific piece. It's a version of a recent speech by William Ruckelshaus, describing at length his recollection of his role as acting FBI director, and then Deputy Attorney General, during the Watergate era, including his firing/resignation during the Saturday Night Massacre.  I highly recommend it.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 29, 2012 at 05:24 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I’ve seen the gradual shift from memory to history in teaching National Security Law. Vietnam and Iran-Contra are clearly history, to which students bring mainly detached curiosity or impressions from movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. But their views on the War on Terror are grounded in personal experience and memory. At least they have been. Each year our discussion of 9/11 and its aftermath seems less fresh, less urgent, and more and more to my students like history rather than memory.

Posted by: Rob Knowles | Mar 30, 2012 3:16:59 PM

"As many have pointed out, our country benefited from surviving a massive breach of trust. The center and the Constitution held. In my estimation, we also suffered greatly in at least two ways. The erosion of trust of the American people in their government, which had started with the Vietnam War, was given another flood of reasons to continue by the Watergate. As a result, the delegation by the people of the power to govern, so essential to a free society, was partially taken back. In my view, our foreign and domestic policies have suffered greatly as a result of this take back and we have not yet fully recovered. Nor has the power removed ever been fully restored by the American people."

I think this is accurate. The early 1970s were a watershed moment, and not entirely in a good way. The prevailing cynicism among people my age and younger is, I think, in part attributable to events we do not even remember.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 30, 2012 12:19:31 PM

This is both a memory and civics problem. Not only have first-hand memories faded, but students don't come to school with the basic understanding of so many key historical events that produce a lot of law in a lot of areas--Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, etc.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 30, 2012 12:43:55 AM

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