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“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,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Mormon apostle spoke to students, faculty and academics at the University of Oxford in England on Thursday, June 15, 2017, about his experiences as a law clerk during the Watergate trials more than 40 years ago.
“I had what you would call a ‘ringside’ seat at the Watergate trials,” recalled Elder Christofferson, who was the law clerk to presiding Judge John Sirica in the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. “On one occasion the judge said to me, ‘I hope you appreciate this. Not many law clerks get an experience like this.’ And then he paused and said, ‘I guess not many judges do either.’”
The Watergate scandal, named after a building complex in the nation’s capital, led to the resignation of United States President Richard Nixon in 1974, after the president and his attorney general, legal counsel and closest aides were implicated in efforts to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate offices. Members of the president’s reelection committee had devised a plan to illegally enter the offices at the Watergate complex to plant listening devices.
“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,” Elder Christofferson explained. Copies of the relevant portions of the tapes were then handed over to the special prosecutor and grand jury.
Judge Sirica rejected the president’s claim of executive privilege to withhold the White House tapes.
“He took that decision with great trepidation,” Elder Christofferson said. “I was proud of him for his integrity and commitment to follow his conscience. “Watergate was a scandal’s scandal, so prominent that almost every other scandal in the United States since then has had ‘gate’ attached to its name to give it added gravitas,” he stated.
Lessons of Conscience
“In my view, conscience is a defining personal imperative that stirs deep in the soul of each person,” the Latter-day Saint apostle told the Oxford gathering.
Elder Christofferson believes President Nixon had “many points along the way” that he could have stopped the cover-up “with an awakened conscience.” Instead, he said the president got deeper into the cover-up conspiracy.
“Conscience should never be a cloak to hide hurtful behavior or an excuse to gain privilege,” Elder Christofferson said. “When we deploy our beliefs in this way, fellow citizens see through the agenda.”
Elder Christofferson said clerking during Watergate provided an education that guides him to this day.
“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.
Elder Christofferson offered the audience a practical suggestion on how to strengthen conscience. “A life devoted to service to others allows conscience to flourish. Service provides a natural barrier against the ills that flow in the wake of self-will and self-interest,” 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,” said the senior Church leader.
“The concept of conscience and the way that it impacts our society as a public servant is something that’s really close to my heart, and it was really neat to hear Elder Christofferson’s perspective and experience,” said Briana Bowen, an Oxford student.
“I found it particularly inspirational as a Muslim listening to the Elder Christofferson saying that our conscience guides us and the center of it is religion,” said attorney Aina Khan.
“I think what I will carry forward from this talk is a sense of importance of moral absolutes, how important those are to form how we think and how we act in the world,” added Oxford student Nathan Pinkoski.
“There was a feeling, an appreciation for what was shared in the themes, the need for greater service, the need of public servants with integrity, but also the need to remain engaged and to be involved in the process and to simply do good,” said businessman Alan Phillips.
“May your own conscience grow increasingly firm and refined. And may there never be a Watergate in your professional or personal history,” Elder Christofferson concluded.