A “ringside seat” of the Watergate scandal deepened Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s appreciation and commitment to the life-guiding lessons of “right and wrong” learned in his childhood home and at church.
“I feel fortunate that integrity and trustworthiness were emphasized in my life at home growing up and fortified by a religious upbringing and teaching,” he said at the Jan. 14 forum entitled “Integrity & Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today.”
A member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Christofferson added he “can’t claim perfection” — but he can claim gratitude for learning fundamental lessons of honesty at an early age.
When he was a little boy, young Todd once swiped a candy bar from the grocery store. He wasn’t a very good thief. The chocolate smeared across his face betrayed his misdeed. His mother marched him back to the store where “in tears and almost fear of prison” he confessed and paid a dime for the stolen treat.
“That experience put an end to my life of crime,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
“But it was the Watergate experience,” he said, “that taught me the importance of integrity and trust like nothing else.”
Bob Woodward, the Washington Post investigative reporter who together with Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story in 1973, joined Elder Christofferson on the panel.
Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, also participated with Deseret News opinion editor, Boyd Matheson, moderating the historic forum.
The event, sponsored by the Deseret News and held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., was attended by 450 people including journalists, lawmakers and students.
After graduating from Duke Law School in 1972, a young D. Todd Christofferson began clerking for Judge John J. Sirica, then-chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. That clerkship would coincide with the Watergate proceedings directed largely by Judge Sirica.
The scandal would cost Richard M. Nixon the American presidency. His efforts to cover up the scandal resulted in him becoming a co-conspirator in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex.
The future apostle was with Judge Sirica in his chambers when they listened to subpoenaed tape recordings of Nixon infamously recorded in the Oval Office.
During the Jan. 14 panel discussion, Elder Christofferson said he and Judge Sirica were staggered to hear, on tape, of President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up.
For both, it felt like “a blow to the gut.”
“I remember the shock that both the judge and I felt in that moment. … We were so discouraged, we went home early that day. We had no heart to do anything else for some time. We knew what would happen several months later.”
Woodward noted that, for years following his investigation of the scandal, the actions of Gerald Ford in pardoning his predecessor Nixon, felt like the final sting of corruption in the Watergate case. But looking back through the lens of 25 years of history, Woodward said he realized that Ford was not corrupt, but rather courageous and gutsy.
For Woodward, that realization taught him the importance of not rushing to judgment, he said.
The Watergate scandal occurred almost a half-century ago. But its cautionary lessons of accountability and honesty remain as relevant as ever in the lives of individuals.
Relating the lessons from Watergate to today, Dimock noted that the Pew Research Center has seen a decline in how American citizens view their elected representatives and the government at the national level. And while the numbers were lowest immediately following Nixon’s presidency, trust for the government to do ‘what is right’ has been reportedly low for nearly a decade.
“We’ve got to feel accountability, I think always. At least to God if nowhere else,” said Elder Christofferson.
“Even in small things I think you have to be careful. When it seems you won’t get caught or it doesn’t matter or it’s just too small, I don’t think you can make an exception. None of us can escape, I feel, the responsibility for our own selves, our own conduct, our own integrity.”
That personal accountability of honesty, the Apostle added, “may be the greatest contribution we can make.”
The Watergate scandal was, he noted, an assault on the crucial institutions of society. “But it didn’t have the ultimate effects of destroying them because good people, people of integrity, came to the fore and exercised their influence.”
People committed to integrity, he added, “defended the institutions and the processes and our society, and I feel like we’re obligated in our time to be the same kind of people, to be the kind of people that we’re asking the rest of the world to be.”
The Watergate experience steeled Elder Christofferson’s resolve “to the teachings of my youth.”
“I have been anxious since that time to do what I could to promote those values that I was blessed with and the traits of integrity as broadly as I can, especially among the rising generation.
“My position in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fortunately gives me that opportunity and, as we say, a bully pulpit to preach that gospel.”
Woodward’s award-winning investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal revealed the perils of power, entitlement and hubris.
But Nixon’s final actions as president also offered a few positive moments. In a farewell address at the White House in 1974, the disgraced president spoke of the destructive power of hate, saying: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then, you’ve destroyed yourself.”
Consider the wisdom and insight revealed at that moment, said Woodward.
“It’s not only a political lesson, but a wonderful lesson for all of us. Hating in the end doesn’t destroy your enemy; it’s the hating that destroys you.”
Abandoning institutional and personal integrity and trust exacts a heavy cost on society. Dimock said research indicates Americans feel increasing levels of mistrust toward their government and elected leaders.
“Integrity, trust and truth don’t belong to a political party or any one politician,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to a business or an organization or a government agency or even the media.
“The principles of integrity and trust are the responsibility of we the people.”
During the panel discussion, Elder Christofferson was asked if there were times when his own commitment to integrity was, perhaps, “stretched.”
He answered that there were times in his legal career when a client, desperate for a favorable outcome, asked him to do something that was wrong. “You have to stand up and say, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ ”
Elder Christofferson also weighed in on the roles of religious institutions and faith leaders to promote pluralism, integrity, trust and civility in society.
“Faith organizations are greatly benefited by pluralism and by preparing themselves and taking a role in society, in that context. Not by trying to dominate, not by trying to dictate — but by being a voice among others.”
He then referenced the 11th Article of Faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
“Participation of religious bodies has to be on that basis,” he said. “We are not controlling, but we are a voice and we are entitled to be heard like everyone else is.”
Religious institutions should be welcome participants in promoting justice and tolerance in society, he added.
“Speaking” from a religious standpoint, he added, does not equate to “imposing” religion on another.
“Frankly, every law and every regulation is an enshrinement of somebody’s values,” he said. “It is all based on values and perspectives that different people argue for and that enough share that it gets adopted.”
Most criminal laws, for example, share a religious belief at their base.
Elder Christofferson noted he is troubled by the growth of moral relativism, where truth is “whatever I say it is for me” and there is no ultimate truth.
As a result, any form disagreement is taken as a personal attack. “You can’t have a reasonable discussion. You can’t have an objective weighing of the merits of one side or the other.”
Woodward asked Elder Christofferson if tolerance should be extended to non-believers.
“For sure,” he replied. “That’s real pluralism. That is what I opt for. It’s what we opt for as a Church. We have a voice — everybody has a voice.”
The Apostle then shared a quote from Joseph Smith on the subject of living harmoniously with others:
“If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No, I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”