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Watergate reforms fade, 30 years later

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The Watergate scandal that resulted in the only resignation of a US president produced profound changes in the American political system – from a deep-rooted distrust of public officials to the rise of investigative journalism to a greater openness in government.

Today, 30 years after what was called a "third-rate burglary," many of those sweeping changes are now being reversed or receding into history as a quaint curio.

In just the past few months, the federal government has loosened many of the restraints on intelligence-gathering that were rooted in the Watergate era. Americans are no longer reflexively cynical about their leaders, if President Bush's approval ratings in particular are to be believed. Even many of today's young reporters have a different raison d'être: They want to be narrative storytellers as much as investigative journalists, developing Deep Voices instead of Deep Throats.

"My sense is you can just erase the '70s," says LeRoy Ashby, a historian at Washington State University.

Part of the change in the nation's zeitgeist simply reflects the normal ebb and flow of history. Part of it is generational: Today's 20-somethings are more likely to remember the Watergate complex as Monica Lewinsky's address than as the site of a politically motivated burglary of Democratic headquarters on June 17, 1972.

Part of it is the defining moment of the time: In the 1970s, it was Watergate and everything it represented about the excesses of government. Today it is the war on terrorism after an attack that exposed America's vulnerability.

"We reacted strongly to Watergate and Watergate-era excesses of government power," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here. "Now we're making a readjustment. We're swinging back to what we were before, but to a new set of realities."

More respect for authority
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