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Tom Putnam of Cape Porpoise is the former director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Former White House Counsel John Dean and presidential historian Timothy Naftali will speak at a public forum, “Watergate and American Politics — Fifty Years On,” at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in Kresge Auditorium at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Just over a half-century ago, in the election of 1972, Richard Nixon was handily reelected as president and Bill Cohen won his first seat in Congress.

Having grown up in Bangor, the son of a baker and an all-state basketball player, Cohen attended Bowdoin College and Boston University Law School. Eventually he returned to his home city, where he would become mayor before winning his first election for national office. Appointed to the House Judiciary Committee, he made headlines, two years later, as one of seven Republican committee members who voted to support a resolution of impeachment against the president.

A true act of political courage, by bucking party loyalists, Cohen jeopardized his electoral future to do what he thought was in the best interest of the country.  

In his words, at the time: “I have been faced with the terrible responsibility of assessing the conduct of a president that I voted for and believed to be the best man to lead this country. … But a president who in the process, by act or acquiescence, allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference, arrogance, and abuse.”

It was 50 years ago this week, on April 30, 1973, that Nixon attempted to put the Watergate fiasco behind him by claiming he was not involved in the cover-up, firing John Dean as his White House counsel, and forcing the resignation of his aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

Yet the nation would learn, over time, that such a claim was patently untrue as we watched the riveting televised hearings chaired by U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin. It was Dean’s testimony that proved the most damning and that was later corroborated by the existence of secretly taped recordings from the Oval Office.

A year later, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.

While we are indeed a nation of laws not of men (and women), that simple phrase glosses over the fact that our laws are written by elected officials and interpreted by what we hope to be an impartial judiciary.  

Maine has a proud history of elected officials and judicial figures taking courageous stands that run counter to the cultural mores of the moment.  

U.S. Sen. George Mitchell famously invoked his service as a federal judge when confronting Oliver North in the Iran-Contra hearings with these powerful words: “Although he’s regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics. And in America, disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of a lack of patriotism.”

In her legendary “Declaration of Conscience” speech, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith took on U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and ideologues in her own party who were willing to destroy innocent people’s careers in their effort to defeat communism.  

We have all watched the deliberations in the House and Senate in the aftermath of the insurrection that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, as to who should be held responsible. And those events continue to be adjudicated through the courts.

As they do so, one hopes that the central figures involved will have the courage, like Dean, to testify to the truth as they experienced it. And that those who evaluate and sit in judgment of the evidence will be as thoughtful and deliberate as Cohen.

“I have set out only a few small goals for myself during my brief trespass upon this earth,” Cohen wrote to a friend in 1966, a month before his 26th birthday. He then listed his top goal — “to be a man of integrity and honesty.”

We are a better nation for it.