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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Four decades ago this weekend, in the living room of Jerry Ford’s high-school civics teacher, I watched on television the end of the Watergate nightmare. What we could not have known then was that we were also at the beginning of a new national nightmare, a much worse disaster that slowly erodes our Constitution, our economy and our freedoms.

Pop Churm was long retired from South High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as we sat silently and observed President Richard Nixon announce his resignation on the evening of August 8, 1974, and then at noon the next day saw Jerry Ford sworn in, the first and so far only unelected president.

Churm then taught me and Detroit Free Press readers a powerful lesson — one that America has yet to learn — about decency, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and the value of not merely having vigilant watchdogs, but responding when they bark.  His was a lesson about government that serves not the donors of secret political money, but the people.

Now, 40 years on, it is clear that America took the wrong lessons from Watergate, just as it continues to misunderstand 9/11 to the detriment of our liberties, our security and our wealth. Had only America responded to both of these events with the wisdom of Ford’s teacher, what a better country we would live in today.

To Pop Churm, secret money in politics made Watergate possible, financing not just the burglaries and dirty tricks committed on White House orders, but giving the donors secretive influence that inherently corrupted our democracy and the people we temporarily grant the power to administer our government.

Churm taught Ford in 1930 that every penny of political money should be open and accounted for, lest temptation and human frailty damage the body politic and ruin one’s character. It was a practical lesson that evidently no one taught to a majority of today’s Supreme Court justices.

To teach students about integrity and political campaigns, Churm had the students organize mock political parties to run candidates class office. Each party was limited, in this Great Depression year, to 10 bucks.

As I reported in my front-page story back then:

To make sure no one used campaign funds for dirty tricks or teenage pranks, Churm had the students organize a watchdog committee to keep an eye on all receipts and expenditures. Each party had to file a report on its financial activities at the end of the campaign. Political reformers today are still trying to get that kind of mechanism to watch real political fundraising.

‘We try to teach the students honesty and integrity and dependability,’ Churm said. ‘We tried to teach them that they should be working for the interests of their school and the class, not their own.’

Churm smiled a bit when Ford said in his inauguration address that ‘truth is the glue that holds government together.’

Pop Churm says he is confident that with his former pupil in the Oval Office, ‘there will be a new era in government and that those who serve the people will be beyond reproach and the honesty and dignity will prevail.’

“Here’s an ordinary man, a regular fellow,” Churm, who was then 87 years old, told me, getting up to switch off the television, “not one who has his head up in the clouds, a man who has led a decent life. It just goes to show that if you have character and decency and honesty you’ll get ahead.”

Churm’s words captured what all of America felt in this peaceful transition of power: hope for a better future and change we believed in.

A 1935 portrait of Churm by painter Mathias Alten. (via Ford Presidential Library)
A 1935 portrait of Churm by painter Mathias Alten (via Ford Presidential Library).

Once the Senate hearings had established what the president knew and when he knew it, Nixon at long last had the decency to resign, saving us from an impeachment trial. Looking back, we forget how much Nixon was a creature of the New Deal. He experimented with cash grants to the poor, a “black capitalism” program that morphed into a loan program for immigrant cabbies in New York City, and pretty good environmental laws. Were Nixon to come back today, though, his own party would reject him as an ultra-liberal. Politics reporters would describe him as Dennis Kucinich Lite.

When Nixon left the White House, we celebrated how the scheme of our Constitution worked under pressure. The separation of powers, the checks and balances, mixed with an aroused citizenry — and no small amount of animus for a paranoid and hard-drinking politician whom even some of his allies personally detested — brought an end to an administration polluted with secret political donations.

In a foreshadowing of today’s massive electronic surveillance of Americans, what ultimately brought Nixon down were government recordings. Unbeknownst to Oval Office visitors or many of his top staff, Nixon had tape recorders installed to make a full record of his Oval Office conversations except for 18 minutes of inconvenient truth.

What Nixon thought was the innocent recording of Oval Office conversations — a future aid in writing his history of his presidency — destroyed him. Just as the words from massive and illegal surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails pour into ever more government computer files where we are told they should not concern us. Yet events unseen may turn any of those conversations and emails into swords to be wielded against any among us deemed an enemy of the state if only because of our religion, the exercise of our rights, or any other offense to a government that is becoming a power unto itself.

What no one could have grasped that day was that Watergate would not rejuvenate politics, would not restore the 80 percent-and-above voter participation of the late 19th century. Instead, Watergate would prompt many millions of Americans to shun politics, saying they wanted nothing to do with such dirty business, weakening our freedoms.

After Watergate so many Americans would turn off, tune out and drop out of politics that by 1996 less than half of the adult population bothered to cast a ballot, though that figure has begun to rise as voters born after Nixon’s departure cast ballots.

What we could not have foreseen was how turning our backs on a system that worked when it most needed to work would benefit those who profit from government or who want to impose their ideology, be it the fantasy that invading Iraq on a pretext would bring democracy, peace and stability to the Middle East or that corporations have political and religious rights, rights they are now using to trample those of actual people.

And certainly no one back then, a decade before Orwell’s 1984, could have imagined that judicial activists on the Supreme Court would fashion from whole cloth a cloak of invisibility around political donations and donors. Certainly not Pop Churm.

Churm hid his given name, Percy, even before he started teaching at South High School in Grand Rapids in 1917.  By the time a stocky blond track and football athlete named Jerry Ford, class of 1931, came along, the history teacher had become a much-loved coach known as Pop.

As advisor to Ford’s senior class, Churm created some 15 student committees to oversee class affairs from dances to the yearbook.

“Jerry was always honest and dependable,” Pop Churm recalled. “You told him to do something and he just did it. He never got into any kind of trouble. He had high moral standards,” Churm said, adding, “he wasn’t ever selfish and he isn’t vain at all. And he wasn’t a stuffed shirt about it, either.”

Ford served on the yearbook picture committee, which Churm recalled sought competitive bids from photographers for the senior class portraits. It was one of many things he said he taught students so that in life, in business, and in politics, they would be smart and honest. Those elected or appointed to government posts, Churm said he taught, should always conduct themselves with integrity, viewing themselves as servants of the people trusted for a spell with power, not as powers that be.

Sadly, things work did not work out as Pop Churm hoped after the decent and affable Republican congressman from Grand Rapids left office. In each of the subsequent administrations, in varying degrees, we have faced the same problem that Pop Churm guided that stocky athlete away from more than eight decades ago – the corrupting influence of money, especially how it makes government distant from the people from whom it derives its power and legitimacy.

We have lost the idea Pop Churm taught: That those in power are stewards, temporarily granted powers by us to act on our behalf.  Today it costs so much to run for Congress or the Senate that lawmakers have big donors on speed dial, but not Joan Q. Citizen. Presidential politics is even worse in this regard of craven obeisance to donors.

Today perhaps 100,000 lobbyists work Washington and the state capitals. Today money talks more than anyone could have imagined when Nixon henchmen had the equivalent of less than $2 million in today’s money for dirty tricks.

And we suffer as a result, paying tribute to big corporations that refuse to invest much of their shareholders’ money in America or pay taxes on their profits, while demanding hidden gifts of taxpayer dollars to pay for new factories or offices.

Pop Churm told me he would have made sure that any student who stole a penny – a mere penny – from the 10 bucks he allowed each of the mock political parties at South High to raise would not have received a diploma. That bright line struck me back then as harsh, but effective. What didn’t occur to me or anyone else was that in the decades following Watergate we would drift so far from the idea of decency, of integrity and of holding government accountable through transparency.

What no one imagined was that in politics the power of money, especially unaccountable money, would grow like kudzu, strangling the body politic.

Who could have imagined back then that four decades later, the lines between private gain and public duty would blur until they were virtually erased by our Supreme Court, so much so that the corrupting influence of secret money in politics ceases to be the news of the day?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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