Charles Colson has died.
Now then, who can say what he did to merit being remembered?
The newspaper obituaries tell us, of
course, but when I mentioned his name in front of a group of under-thirties, none
could answer the question.
We of an earlier generation tend to forget how much
time has elapsed since the scandal that brought Mr. Colson his notoriety in the
early 1970s. Perhaps it hasn’t been time
enough to qualify as history. In any
event, the youngsters hadn’t even heard of Watergate. They were dimly aware that Richard Nixon was
once President of the United
States, but not that he was the only one to
resign – or the reasons why.
I remember Watergate as if it had occurred last
week. The whole business – which started
as a burglary of the Democratic Party’s offices by a number of dodgy characters
who, it turned out, were sponsored by political operators close to the White
House, and ended with Nixon’s disgrace and the imprisonment for many of his
aides for conspiracy to cover it up – went on for what seemed an eternity. The months of newspaper revelations,
congressional hearings and trials ran into years, but consumed the interest of
the American public until the last.
The death of Colson, who worked in the White House as
President Nixon’s favourite go-to man for what emerged as a widespread ‘dirty
tricks’ campaign directed against his political ‘enemies’, leaves Gordon
Strachan as the only survivor of the so-called Watergate Seven.
(Here’s a quiz-night question. Who were the seven? In addition to Colson and Strachan, they were
H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, both senior White House advisors, U.S. Attorney
General John Mitchell, plus junior aides Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson.)
The cover-up, and the unending series of revelations
of misdeeds by government and Republican Party officers, was largely exposed by
two investigative journalists at the Washington
Post: Carl Bernstein and Bob
Woodward. Their names meant nothing to
my young guests. None had read their
book All The President’s Men, or recalled
seeing the film derived from it.
As a journalist myself at the time of Watergate, I
suppose I have more reason than most, even of my own generation, for recalling
their exploits. But I couldn’t help reflecting
how remarkably uncurious the newer members of society seem to be about history
– even of history as recent as the Watergate affair.
“It was before I was born,” one of them
mentioned. Well, so was the Battle of
Hastings, by several hundred years, but I learned by methods I can no longer
identify, but probably school lessons, what that was all about.
I’ve no idea what’s taught in our schools these days,
but what isn’t taught seems to be anything that isn’t likely to satisfy
examination pass rates imposed by the government to satisfy political targets. And history may be too broad and difficult a
subject to make such a contribution.
Tell me, am I the one who’s out of touch?