What effect did United States v. Nixon have on students today?
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision in August of 1974 had an immense impact of how students today, as well as citizens in general, view presidential power, how skeptical they are of politicians, and how little they trust those men and women who hold the highest offices of the land. The ruling by the Supreme Court in United States vs. Nixon demonstrated to the country that nobody, not even the President, was above the law, or beyond reach of its power. By forcing Nixon and his administration to release the now infamous secret recordings that he and his aides had made in the White House, the Judicial Branch reasserted its power and laid bare to the nation the criminal misconduct and mendacity of a sitting president. The fact that the court publicly checked presidential power was shocking at the time.
Many students today take it for granted that corrupt politicians who flagrantly abuse their power for self-advancement will be removed from office and likely prosecuted. That was not the case prior to United States vs. Nixon. At the time, the power of the president, as well as the power of senators and other high office holders like governors, was considered almost absolute, at least while they were in office.
Part of the reason for this sentiment was that generally speaking, before Watergate, most Americans just assumed that their leaders acted in good faith, and that they exercised their powers judiciously. Before Watergate, journalists gave presidents and other men in power tremendous leeway: no major publications published stories about JFK's extra-marital affairs while he was in office, just as no major news outlets reported on the fact that FDR was wheel chair bound when he was in office. Before Watergate, a sort of "gentlemen's agreement" existed between journalists and politicians: people in power were shown great deference. If the president claimed that something was true, it reported as true, unless and until some very compelling evidence to the contrary could be found, and that rarely happened.
The United States vs. Nixon set both a legal and journalistic precedent that made the Pentagon Papers, and other whistle-blower accounts, like those of Edward Snowden, possible. When the public found out that Nixon and his aides had been lying to the American public and perverting the course of justice, their faith in government disappeared. Consequently, investigative journalists went from being portrayed as mud-slinging nerds to the true heroes of democracy, whose mission it was to expose the power-hungry crooks in government who would otherwise run roughshod over the people they were supposed to protect. Most students today learn that they must question authority, think for themselves and do their own research, particularly when it comes to deciding on how to vote. That way of thinking is diametrically opposed to the old teachings that preceded Watergate and Nixon's resignation, which stressed unquestioning loyalty to the government, as well as a pledge of allegiance.
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