TIME psychology

How Memory Links the Presidency, Ferguson and the Cosby Mess

Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.
Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The human brain forgets much more than it remembers, and that has an impact on history, criminal justice and more

Here’s a difficult one, history buffs: Who was Harry Truman? I know, I know, I told you it would be tough, but think hard: Some famous general? Maybe a physicist?

If you guessed U.S. president, good for you! And if you also knew that Truman was the one who came right after Roosevelt (Franklin, that is) and right before Eisenhower, go to the head of the class.

OK, so maybe remembering Truman isn’t such a big deal. But here’s the thing: By 2040, according to a new study just published in Science, only 26% of college students will remember to include his name if they are asked to make a list of all U.S. Presidents, regardless of order.

That finding, which is less a function of historical illiteracy than of the mysterious ways the human brain works, reveals a lot about the perishability of memory. And that, in turn, has implications for contemporary dramas like the Ferguson tragedy, the Bill Cosby mess and the very underpinnings of the criminal justice system.

The Science study, conducted by a pair of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, was actually four studies that took place over 40 years—in 1974, 1991, 2009 and 2014. In the first three, the investigators asked groups of then-college students to list all of the presidents in the order in which they served, and also to list as many of them as they could by name regardless of where they fell in history.

In all three groups over all three eras, the results were remarkably similar. As a rule, 100% of respondents knew the president currently serving, and virtually all knew the prior one or two. Performance then fell off with each previous presidency. Roughly 75% of students in 1974 placed FDR in the right spot, for example. Fewer than 20% of Millennials—born much later—could do that. In all groups, the historical trail would go effectively cold one or two presidents before the subjects’ birth—falling into single digits.

There were exceptions. The Founding Father presidents, particularly the first three—George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—scored high in all groups. As did Abraham Lincoln and his two immediate successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. As for the Tylers and Taylors and Fillmores? Forget about them—which most people did. The pattern held again in a single larger survey conducted in 2014, with a mixed-age sample group that included Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials, all performing true to their own eras.

Almost none of this had to do with any one President’s historical relevance—apart from the Founding Fathers and Lincoln. James Polk’s enormously consequential, one-term presidency is far less recalled than, say, Jimmy Carter’s much less successful four-year stint. Instead, our memory is personal, a thing of the moment, and deeply fallible—and that means trouble.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Ferguson drama is the mix of wildly different stories eyewitnesses presented to the grand jury, with Michael Brown portrayed as anything from anger-crazed aggressor to supine victim. Some witnesses may have been led by prosecutors, some may have simply been making things up, but at least some were surely doing their best, trying to remember the details of a lethal scene as it unfolded in a few vivid seconds.

If forensic psychology has shown anything, it’s that every single expectation or bias a witness brings to an experience—to say nothing of all of the noise and press and controversy that may follow—can contaminate recall until it’s little more reliable than that of someone who wan’t there at all.

Something less deadly—if no less ugly—applies in the Bill Cosby case. In an otherwise reasonable piece in the Nov. 25 Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker cautions against a collective rush to judgment and reminds readers that under the American legal system, Cosby is not a rapist, but an alleged rapist; and his victims, similarly, are as yet only alleged victims. Fair enough; that’s what the criminal justice rules say. But then, there’s this:

“…we have formed our opinions… only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy—which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.”

In other words, if Cosby did drug them, then perhaps we must throw their testimony out of court because, um, Cosby drugged them. Talk about the (alleged) criminal making hay on his crime. And yet, when it comes to the science of memory, that’s an argument that could work before a judge.

Finally, too, there is the unseemly business of Ray Rice. Virtually nobody who knows what he did has forgotten it—which is what happens when you’re a massively strong athlete and you cold-cock a woman. But it was the complete elevator video actually showing the blow, as opposed to the earlier one in which Rice was seen merely dragging the unconscious body of his soon-to-be-wife out into a hotel hallway, that spelled his end—at least until his lifetime NFL ban was overturned on Nov. 28. Knowing what happened is very different from seeing what happened—and once you saw the savagery of Rice’s blow, you could never unsee it.

When it comes to presidents, the fallibility of memory can help. In the years immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation, it was a lot harder to appreciate his manifest triumphs—the Clean Air Act, the opening to China—than it is now. George W. Bush is enjoying his own small historical rebound, with his AIDS in Africa initiative and his compassionate attempt at immigration reform looking better and better in the rear-view mirror—despite the still-recent debacles of his Presidency.

We do ourselves a disservice if we hold historical grudges against even our most flawed presidents; but we do just as much harm if we allow ourselves to forget why ill-planned land wars in countries like Iraq or cheap break-ins at places like the Watergate are so morally criminal. Forget the sequence of the Presidents if you must, but do remember their deeds.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME remembrance

Benjamin Bradlee, Esteemed Editor of the Washington Post, Dies at 93

Became famous for editing the newspaper during its groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal

Benjamin Bradlee, who edited the Washington Post during the period when the newspaper published articles based on the Pentagon Papers and broke the Watergate story which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, has died at age 93.

Bradlee helmed the Post from 1968 to 1991, and became famous after the paper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal, when burglaries of the Democratic National Committee offices were linked to Nixon’s office, setting off a chain of events that eventually forced the president to resign. He was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, which told the story of the Post’s discovery and coverage of the scandal.

He became close friends with John F. Kennedy when he was assigned to cover the his presidential campaign for Newsweek, but he had an advantage over the other reporters; he lived on the same Georgetown block as the young candidate, and they shared a back alley.

“I don’t want to disappoint too many people, but … the number of interesting political, historical conversations we had, you could stick in your ear,” recalled Bradlee about his friend. “We talked about girls.”

Bradlee’s Newsweek remembrance of JFK after his assassination became a book, That Special Grace. In 2013, Bradlee was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

TIME Watergate

John Dean: Why Nixon Risked His Presidency

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It Courtesy Viking/Penguin

In a situation in which no outcome would be good, the president illogically doubled-down on certain disaster

To understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon gambled away his presidency, employing increasingly spurious defenses, I decided to do what no one else had done: Identify, listen to, and transcribe all of Nixon’s secretly recorded Watergate-related conversations. I doubt if anyone outside the National Archives has ever heard even half of the one thousand conversations I discovered. It took me four years and a great deal of assistance to accomplish this task, the results of which I have reported in The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. My book is primarily an almost day-by-day narrative of Watergate scandal as it unfolded, covering the period from the break-in in June of 1972 to Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of Nixon’s secret taping system in July of 1973. Most of this account consists of a carefully culled record from over four millions words of direct dialogue of the principal figures, with context and comments as necessary.

The object of my search was an explanation of why Nixon would risk his presidency with the concocted defenses he ultimately offered—defenses based not in fact but in his effort to twist and distort events. Broadly speaking, what I found was that at the outset, Nixon considered Watergate merely a political embarrassment that would pass. He incorrectly concluded, however—based on less than complete information from White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman—that Watergate did not directly involve the White House, or him. This is not to say that the president was uninvolved, for clearly he did not want Watergate to destroy his former attorney general and campaign manager, John Mitchell, who he correctly suspected had approved the illicit operation undertaken by former White House aides G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, with their team of amateur operatives.

Unintentionally, within days of the Watergate arrests, Haldeman drew the president into a conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up what had actually transpired there. The tapes and related records clearly establish that this initial conspiracy was formed and directed by Haldeman, Mitchell, and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s top domestic adviser, who had commissioned the earlier criminal activities of Liddy, Hunt, and their men. The president himself was not informed of some key facts of the situation, such as the prior criminal activities of those involved at the Watergate had been undertaken earlier for the White House. Although Nixon’s role in the affair was initially surprisingly passive, he did expressly approve elements of the subsequent cover-up, including payments to the Watergate defendants and the perjury necessary to make the scheme work.

It was not until eight months after the arrests at the Watergate that I was summoned by the president to discuss the matter. I was uncertain then about what he did or did not know; as it turned out, he knew much more than he let on. But when Nixon soon began insisting that I write a bogus report about Watergate, I warned him we were involved in criminal conduct with the payments to the Watergate defendants, and that it was almost certain these cover-up activities would soon collapse. Following that March 21, 1973, conversation, Nixon began to focus on the details of White House’s response to the break-in, carefully examining everything that had occurred in the relevant period, particularly his own conduct. When he realized he was culpable he fell into a period of protracted dread and denial, which was manifested by increasingly obsessive-compulsive behavior. In the following months he discussed Watergate with his aides ad nauseam, as he endlessly rehashed and refashioned his justifications and rationalizations—all the while distorting his own role to protect himself and his presidency at the expense of everyone, notwithstanding having approved their actions. Nixon, realizing that he had clearly violated criminal laws, understood that he had few options, and none of them was good. While as president he was immune from criminal prosecution, he knew he could be removed from office, then prosecuted and even further disgraced by being sent to prison.

While working on this book, I became aware of a number studies conducted after Watergate, research with well-tested findings by psychologists and economists who examined risk-taking and decision-making by people in a “loss frame”—that is, a situation in which none of the options is good. Study after study demonstrated how decision-making becomes remarkably illogical in conditions like that which the president faced in Watergate. Nixon, who boasts during the recorded conversations of this period of his prowess as a poker player, initially tried to bluff his way through the scandal with small bets. As he kept losing, however, the more exposed he became, and the more he was inclined to risk. Nixon’s defenses were, in effect, a series of increasingly bad bets. Had I known in March 1973 what I know today, when warning him of a cancer on his presidency I would have also cautioned him about the nature of decision-making when there are no acceptable choices. The prudent thing for a person in a loss frame who must make a decision is to discuss the problem with someone who is not in that loss frame.

Nixon, as the tapes reveal, confided in no one outside his immediate circle, all of whom had their own motives to support the deceptions, and was thus he was a classic loss-frame decision maker. That, of course, was not his only problem, but certainly among the more glaring for his deeply flawed defenses and related decisions which would cost him his presidency.

 

John W. Dean was legal counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and his Sen­ate testimony lead to Nixon’s resignation. In 2006, Dean testified before the Senate Judiciary Commit­tee investigating George W. Bush’s NSA warrant­less wiretap program. He teaches a continuing legal education program throughout the country, drawing on the lessons of Watergate, and contributes political/legal commentary to Justia.com. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Blind Ambition, Broken Government, Conservatives Without Conscience and Worse Than Watergate.

 

TIME White House

What Richard Nixon’s Impeachment Looked Like

TIME Aug. 5, 1974 Cover
DENNIS BRACK / BLACK STAR—TIME

As Obama impeachment chatter continues, Nixon's resignation hits its 40th anniversary

Read more about Nixon’s resignation in TIME’s archives.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon resigning from the U.S. presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up. The anniversary comes just as a handful of Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, threaten to impeach President Barack Obama. “Impeachment is a message that has to be sent to our president that we’re not going to put up with this lawlessness,” Palin said in early July.

But the current situation is still a far cry from what went on 40 years ago. Today, even the President’s opposition in the House admits that there’s no serious impeachment effort underway. (The House did vote to support Speaker John Boehner’s lawsuit against Obama, but that’s not about impeachment.) For Nixon, however, the House Judiciary Committee went through with it, passing one article of impeachment against Nixon on July 27, 1974. The issue would have then moved to the full House of Representatives, where it had been likely to pass and continue on to the Senate, which had the power to remove Nixon from office. None of that happened, of course. Nixon resigned before it could.

In recognition of a political decision that rocked the country 40 years ago — and that other one currently attempting to rock the Democratic fundraising arm — here are six quotations from TIME’s 1974 coverage that show what an impeachment process looks like:

“People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

Nixon said these words in a press conference several months before resigning, in November 1973, as inquiries into the Watergate Scandal continued to pick up speed.

“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct…But Watergate is our shame.”

The House Judiciary Committee that determined Nixon’s impeachment as the recommended course of action reached a vote of 27 to 11. Six Republican Congressman joined 21 Democrats to approve the motion. Among them was Virginia Republican Rep. M. Caldwell Butler, who said this quote. Butler helped Nixon on his reelection and stated that, after he announced he would vote for the President’s impeachment, he cried.

“I felt that if we didn’t impeach, we’d just ingrain and stamp in our highest office a standard of conduct that’s just unacceptable.”

Alabama Democrat Walter Flowers, who said these words, struggled with deciding whether he would vote in favor of Nixon’s impeachment. He came from an overwhelmingly pro-Nixon district. Other members of the committee were, like Flowers, hesitant to impeach but feared the precedent that could be set by not doing so. “I have been faced with the terrible responsibility of assessing the conduct of a President that I voted for, believed to be the best man to lead this country,” said Maine Republican Rep. William Cohen. “But a President who in the process by actor acquiescence allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference and arrogance and abuse.”

“There was just too much evidence.”

Republican Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland said that he made his decision to impeach while driving home one night, as the weight of the evidence against President Nixon finally hit him. “After reading the transcripts, it was sobering: the number of untruths, the deception and the immoral attitudes,” Hogan said. “By any standard of proof demanded, we had to bind him over for trial and removal by the Senate.” In the public eye, the Maryland Congressman offered a sterner view of the situation. “The evidence convinces me that my President has lied repeatedly,” Hogan said at a press conference, “deceiving public officials and the American people.”

“This is the most important thing I shall ever do in my whole life, and I know it.”

Republican Rep. Charles Sandman of New Jersey understood the importance of the task at hand, which makes it even more interesting that he was one of Nixon’s staunchest supporters through the Watergate scandal. As one explanation for opposing all articles of impeachment, Sandman recalled the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, which he called “one of the darkest moments in the Government of this great nation.” Sandman added, “I do not propose to be any part of a second blotch on the history of this great nation.” Sandman, like Nixon’s other defenders, paid dearly for their support of the administration after the White House tapes were released on Aug. 5, revealing the President’s demands to cease Watergate investigations. Sandman was defeated in his re-election campaign of 1974 and never served in Congress again.

“I think it could perhaps be one of our brightest days.”

New York Democrat Charles Rangel, who continues to serve in the House of Representatives, took an optimistic outlook on the impeachment proceedings. He viewed them as living proof of the Constitution’s soundness. “Some say this is a sad day in America’s history,” Rangel said. “I think it could perhaps be one of our brightest days. It could be really a test of the strength of our Constitution, because what I think it means to most Americans is that when this or any other President violates his sacred oath of office, the people are not left helpless.”

If polls from that time can serve as an indication, the House Judiciary Committee did act on the wishes of the American people. Even before the release of the incriminating White House tapes, a Harris poll showed that 53% of Americans supported the impeachment of Nixon, who held an approval rating of 24% at that point. In comparison, a July CNN poll found that 65% of Americans oppose an impeachment of Obama.

Read more about Nixon’s resignation in TIME’s archives.

TIME Washington

The Garage Where ‘Deep Throat’ Spilled Watergate Secrets Will Be Demolished

Apartments and a mall will take its place, leaving only a historical plaque to commemorate the location where Mark Felt, a top FBI agent known as "Deep Throat," would share Watergate secrets with journalist Bob Woodward

It very well may be the most important parking garage in America, or at least the only one instrumental in the end of a presidency. But by 2017, the Rosslyn, Va., facility where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward received covert tips on the Watergate scandal — informing the news stories that played a large role in prompting President Richard Nixon’s resignation — will be gone.

On Saturday, the five members of the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to allow Monday Properties, a major real-estate-development firm, to demolish the parking garage and its adjoining office building and construct both a shopping center and a high-density apartment building in its place, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The pre-existing structure, the demolition of which was announced by Monday Properties in August, was built in the 1960s — a time, according to Arlington County Board vice chairwoman Mary Hynes, when Rosslyn was “not a very nice place for people.”

But it was in this “not very nice place” that Mark Felt, a top FBI agent better known by the moniker Deep Throat, would meet Woodward, providing him with classified information surrounding a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex in June 1972. Over the course of two years, Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein were able to trace the burglary to a complex web of corruption that ultimately led to the White House.

Nixon resigned in August 1974 after a prolonged scandal; dozens of other federal officials were implicated in the process.

For its operative role in uncovering the Watergate controversy, the garage earned a historical marker from Arlington County in 2011, which will stay intact even after the structure has been razed.

“We obviously view the whole Watergate situation as a significant event in the history of our country,” Tim Helmig, chief development officer of Monday Properties, said last year. “It would be our hope that we preserve that plaque and incorporate it in our redevelopment.”

TIME imperial presidency

House GOP Investigations: Libertarian Turning Point or Partisan Ploy?

In the era of Tea Party opposition to Obamacare and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform, Congressional Republicans say they have embraced a shift of power away from the Presidency to Capitol Hill.

House Republicans are waging war against what they say is an “Imperial Presidency.” “Every month there’s another episode of the president going around the constitution,” declared Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan earlier this year. The need for Congress to reclaim power from the executive branch has emerged as a central theme of the midterm elections in GOP reports and talking points.

Last week, the GOP put their words into action. On Wednesday, the House voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions during two hearings into alleged political targeting of right wing groups by her office. The next day, the House voted to form a subpoena-wielding select committee to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi Sept. 11, 2012.

In the zero-sum world of Washington, where each of the three branches of government keep a jealous eye on power grabs by the other two, these latest moves by the House Republicans represent a big shift. Traditionally, GOP leaders have opposed powerful Congresses and many have sought to expand Presidential powers. (Don’t get them started on judicial activism). But it seems the era of the Tea Party, built on anti-executive opposition to Obamacare and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform, has Congressional Republicans embracing a shift of power away from the executive branch to the lawmakers and overseers on Capitol Hill.

Will it last? The House Republicans say they are driven by a principled desire to rein in an overreaching executive branch—in the parlance, “a tyrant”. Democrats for their part, say the GOP Congress is engaging in a short-term partisan play for electoral advantage come November.

Over the last two decades, Republicans have more often than not sought to amass power when they control the White House and give it away when they control Congress. The most famous proponent of this tendency was Dick Cheney. At the White House in the aftermath of Watergate, Cheney later said, he saw a Democratic-led Congress draining power from a Republican-led executive branch. When he got back to the White House under George W. Bush he made it a stated goal to get that power back for the President.

In major Bush era legislation, the Republican Party in Congress sought to give power to the president, and often succeeded. The 2001 USA Patriot Act, which expanded presidential power and rolled back Congressionally imposed controls on intelligence collection and sharing, had near total GOP support. Republicans voted 211-3 for the bill while Democrats split 145-62. When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in 2006, 13 Republicans and 124 Democrats voted against it in the House.

Likewise the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Homeland Security Department and gave it broad Patriot Act powers, was supported by 207 Republicans in the House and opposed by 10. House Democrats voted 88 in favor of the Act and 120 against.

There are counter-indicators. With near-total Republican opposition, the more recent Democratic-led Congresses pushed through Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, giving broad new regulatory power to the executive branch. Votes “are so infused by partisanship that its very hard to disentangle where their principles are coming from,” says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. Over time though, Binder says, “It’s easier to find examples of the [Congressional] GOP handing keys to the White House.”

Structurally, Congress has tended to be weaker, or at least smaller and less active, under Republicans over the last 20 years. In the 102nd and 103rd Congresses from 1991-94, when the House was controlled by Democrats, the number of committees peaked at 185, the number of staffers hit 2,321, the number of bills introduced topped 6,700 and the number of committee and subcommittee meetings was 5,152, according to data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

When the Republican party under Newt Gingrich took over the House for the first time in decades in the 104th Congress, the number of House committees dropped to 110, the number of staffers was slashed to 1,266, the number of Bills dropped to 4,542 and the number of committee and subcommittee meetings dropped to 3,796. The Republicans held the House until early 2007 and the numbers stayed relatively flat or ticked up slightly. They then jumped when Democrats took over in 2007.

Republicans have been active overseers in the House and the Senate. In the Nixon era, GOP Senator Howard Baker was a powerful vice chairman of the Watergate committee. More recently, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and Senator John McCain of Arizona pursued waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Under Obama, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Darrell Issa, has grabbed headlines with Issa’s investigations of the Fast and Furious “gun-walking” controversy and the IRS.

But the best way to assess whether the GOP’s current enthusiasm for investigations is political or principled is to see whether the results are permanent. The Iran-Contra hearings helped establish the clear prohibition on independent, White House-run covert actions and the diversion of Congressional appropriations for unauthorized purposes. The investigations and impeachment of Bill Clinton left no long-term change in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Grassley and McCain’s investigations helped lead to tighter ethics restrictions in Congress and stronger inspectors general in the executive branch.

So far, Issa’s high-volume investigations have left little imprint on either Congress or the White House. If the GOP House leaders want to convince Americans they’re undertaking a principled effort to rein in an overreaching executive and not just a partisan effort to boost their electoral chances and fundraising, they should go for long term results, not just temporary attention.

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