From a remarkable ringside seat as the law clerk for the judge in the Watergate trials of the early 1970s, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles witnessed how Richard Nixon steered his presidency onto rocks that destroyed it.
Nixon’s downfall was a numbed conscience, Elder Christofferson said Thursday, June 15, when he shared the lessons he learned about personal integrity and public service to faculty and students at Christ Church College in Oxford, England. With an awakened conscience, he said, Nixon could have stopped the Watergate cover-up and saved his presidency.
“A weak conscience, and certainly a numbed conscience, opens the door for ‘Watergates,’ be they large or small, collective or personal — disasters that can hurt and destroy both the guilty and the innocent,” Elder Christofferson said.
He described the stunning experience he shared with U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica as they, listening on headphones in Sirica’s chambers, became the first people to hear the secret White House tapes of Nixon agreeing to blackmail. He was willing to pay $1 million to the Watergate burglars to cover up the illegal activity of his re-election committee. There is no evidence Nixon ordered or knew about the break-in.
More than 40 years later, Elder Christofferson continues to wonder why Nixon allowed the scandal to grow and fester.
“The life lesson I took away from his experience,” he said, “was that my hope for avoiding the possibility of a similar catastrophe in my own life lay in never making an exception — always and invariably submitting to the dictates of an ethical conscience. Putting one’s integrity on hold, even for seemingly small acts in seemingly small matters, places one in danger of losing the benefit and protection of conscience altogether.”
The scandal began 45 years ago this week, when burglars broke into the Democratic National Party’s headquarters at the Watergate hotel on June 17, 1972, to repair bugs they had installed the previous month. Police arrested the burglars. Elder Christofferson, a recent graduate of Duke University law school, became Sirica’s clerk that August. In September, the burglars were indicted in Sirica’s courtroom.
The judge and his clerk quickly developed a deep relationship. Sirica eventually asked Elder Christofferson to extend his clerkship and gave him major responsibilities. He had Elder Christofferson handle the court’s media requests, draft the judge’s order requiring Nixon to surrender his tape recordings and ultimately deliver the 50-page grand jury report that revealed Nixon’s role in the conspiracy to the House Impeachment Committee at the U.S. Capitol.
“They were political animals intent on victory, no doubt, but they didn’t begin this process as criminals,” Elder Christofferson said of Nixon, his attorney general, the White House legal counsel and other Nixon aides. “Many even served in the military and philanthropic organizations. Why did they do what they did, and what protects you or me, in our lives, our marriages, our families, and our school and vocational endeavors, from tragically destructive errors or even criminal conduct?”
His answer, he said, is integrity. The root of integrity is conscience, which he called “a defining personal imperative that stirs deep in the soul of each person.” Conscience, he added, “requires faith in fixed moral concepts and values — such as justice, mercy, love, honesty, generosity, self-restraint and integrity — that exist apart from personal preference.”
Some forces today are attempting to dilute the influence of conscience in society, attacking the idea of fixed values, Elder Christofferson said. For example, he called moral relativism the enemy of conscience because it asserts that no moral claim can be verified as objectively true or false or better than any other.
“When we do not hearken to the still, small voice of conscience,” he said, a chaos of truth claims, confusion and paralysis arises.
Moral absolutes do exist, he said. For example, there is consensus that speaking truth is right and perjury and lying are wrong, or that protecting children is right and abusing them is wrong. To Elder Christofferson, the general acceptance of common standards suggests a common source, a moral sense. In fact, he asserted, religion has served to identify and deepen understanding of fundamental moral laws.
“For just societies to endure, religious and ethical voices must be heard,” he said.
Otherwise, without a moral underpinning, politics become the realm of raw power.
“In this extreme, moral zealots can be just as troubling as moral relativists,” he said. “Those, whether religious or secular, who enforce rigid moral codes and intimidate or harass anyone who disagrees, are doing a different kind of damage. We see it in electoral politics, on campuses and in our various media environments. Such care more about winning than collaborating. They spend their energy humiliating opponents instead of creating solutions.”
Finally, he encouraged Oxford students and faculty to devote themselves to integrity personally and in public service.
“A life devoted to service to others allows conscience to flourish,” Elder Christofferson said. “Service provides a natural barrier against the ills that flow in the wake of self-will and self-interest. A focus outside ourselves and beyond personal autonomy and personal pleasure will protect and strengthen conscience.”
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