This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As talk of "another Watergate" swirls around investigations of the Trump administration, a Mormon apostle is pointing to the original Watergate scandal and the lessons he learned from his "ringside seat" during the 1970s legal slugfest that toppled Richard Nixon.
D. Todd Christofferson, speaking at the University of Oxford in England, recalled working as a law clerk to the federal judge who played a key role in exposing Nixon and Republican attempts to spy on their political rivals by bugging the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
"Judge John Sirica and I listened to the subpoenaed audio tapes from the White House meetings that demonstrated clearly the complicity of President Nixon in the effort to cover up who was responsible for the break-in at the Watergate," Christofferson said, according to a news release from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The 72-year-old LDS leader told the assembled students and faculty that Nixon, who ultimately resigned the presidency, could have stopped the widening corruption "with an awakened conscience."
"It seemed to me that there were many points along the way when Nixon ... could have called a halt saying, 'This is not right, we will not continue, let the chips fall where they may,' and he might well have outlived the inevitable criticism and finished his term," Christofferson said in a transcript of his address. "But he never did say stop. Instead, he got deeper into the cover-up conspiracy himself."
Nixon's fateful decisions left a deep impression on the Mormon official, who was fresh from Duke's law school at the time, that has stuck with him ever since.
"The life lesson I took away from his experience 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," he said. " … 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."
Christofferson counseled his listeners to look inward and then strengthen their sense of right and wrong by reaching out.
"A life devoted to service to others allows conscience to flourish," he said. "Service provides a natural barrier against the ills that flow in the wake of self-will and self-interest."
Attorney Aina Khan embraced the visiting Mormon authority's message.
"I found it particularly inspirational as a Muslim listening to Elder Christofferson saying that our conscience guides us and the center of it is religion," Khan said in the LDS Church release.
Businessman Alan Phillips said the speech showed the world needs "public servants with integrity" and that everyone should engage in the process and "simply do good."
Christofferson emphasized that no "particular religion or faith tradition should have a right to dictate the moral values and obligations on which a pluralistic society is founded. And a person does not have to be religious to be moral. But for just societies to endure, religious and ethical voices must be heard."
Unlike Nixon, the Mormon leader noted, Sirica did the right thing by refusing to let the president invoke executive privilege to prevent the release of those damning White House tapes. But it wasn't an easy decision for the distinguished jurist.
"I remember clearly the moment in his chambers on Aug. 29, the judge sitting at the table, his order and opinion enforcing the tapes subpoena before him. He was about to make the order public," Christofferson recounted. "I stood beside him as he paused, pen in hand, for what seemed a long, dramatic moment, then he said out loud, 'It is right,' and signed the order. We both felt that indeed the chances were about even that he would either be lionized for his courage in standing up to the president or rebuked by a higher court as an overreaching would-be prosecutor, but I was proud of him for his integrity and commitment to follow his conscience."
Saturday is the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which led to Nixon's downfall and plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis.