A packed, engaged and enthusiastic classroom is an instructor’s dream, and Lloyd Petersen, Southwest Minnesota State University emeritus professor, had just that this week during his “Presidents’ Decisions: Part II” Senior College class at SMSU.
“I learn more from them than they do from me,” Petersen said.
Instead of lecturing for the whole two-hour session, Petersen poses a question a couple times, and the students break into small groups to discuss it before sharing their conclusions with the class.
The topic for Tuesday’s class was the presidential decisions Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford had to make during their terms in office.
“Every president has a dilemma,” Petersen said.
The Watergate scandal was discussed during the first small group breakout session.
Petersen said that at the time of the attempted break-in of the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate building, Sen. George McGovern was getting close in the polls, 41-47.
“There was concern that McGovern might actually catch up,” he said.
Student Bob Aufenthie of Marshall noted that dirty tricks have always been a part of politics.
“This stuff is going on behind the scenes,” he said. “(Politicians) probably did it in Lincoln’s time.”
“This class brings up memories – things you haven’t thought of in awhile,” said Marla Timm of Cottonwood. “It gets you to thinking.”
Petersen said that Ford, a congressman from Michigan, was a “super, super clean” politician who was brought in as vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned for accepting bribes.
“Nixon wanted John Connolly, but the Democrats wouldn’t have him because he was a turncoat – he was a Democrat who turned Republican,” Petersen said as an aside.
Ford became president after Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974.
Ford’s dilemma was should Nixon go to trial for the Watergate break-in and cover-up or should Ford, by executive order, pardon Nixon?
After conferring in small groups, the class came up with many reasons why it was good to pardon Nixon. Reasons included the healing of the nation – not having to undergo a protracted and expensive trial, which would distract the country from carrying on other business.
Only one reason for going to trial was mentioned – that the United States was a “nation of laws; we follow the laws and show the world,” one student said.
Nixon was a longtime scoundrel, Petersen said. He performed dirty tricks during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, something that the colorful character, G. Gordon Liddy, did for him.
Class members couldn’t get over what an amateurish job the burglars did at the Watergate office complex.
In the documentary, “Watergate: A Third-Rate Burglary,” the various players are interviewed. In hindsight, a presidential adviser, Fred Larue, regrets he hadn’t advised Attorney General John Mitchell differently. He wished he would have said “John, this will get us in trouble. We have to back off.”
But “Operation Gemstone,” as the series of dirty tricks capers were called, went on as planned by the president’s men.
Liddy said in the documentary that so many projects under that label were conceived that they went from calling them precious jewel names to semi-precious gems down to “coal and brick.”