How We Saw the News as Kids or: Where Was the Water in Watergate?

I've long been fascinated about how children see the news of the day, and I love talking to people about their memories of historical events. I've asked dozens of people what their first "current events" memory was, curious to see what made an early impression. Some people answer without hesitation, while others have to think hard. Often people remember an election campaign, like Roosevelt or Mondale-Ferraro or Clinton. The children of activists have spoken of their parents including them in political activities during the 30s, 60s and 80s. Many talk about the Challenger disaster. Some say the Gulf War. A colleague from India remembered martial law.

A former boss spoke of sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. She was too young to understand who Dr. King was, but she and a little friend sat stock still because the huge crowd went completely quiet during this speech. Clearly this man was important, and playing around would mean getting in big trouble.

But I've heard one answer over and over again: the assassination of President Kennedy. And it comes from people of a wider range of ages than you might expect, including from people the Philippines, the UK and West Africa. Clearly those of us born later will never fully appreciate what that day was like.

And my own first such memory? Watergate. I was seven, and I'd heard about it for months. I still remember asking, "Mommy, what's Watergate?" She said the president lied, so he had to quit. That made sense since my first grade teacher said that George Washington never lied. (Though I initially found that so hard to believe that I pondered it all the way home.) When I asked what he lied about, my mom said it was too hard to explain. That left me trying to figure out my biggest question: how was it about water? I surmised that President Nixon had flooded the bathroom by putting too much toilet paper in the White House toilet and said he hadn't done it. As some people have pointed out, that's not far from the truth.

My overall memory as a young child, though, was the sense that the world was somewhat upside down. With Watergate, Vietnam, the Kent State shootings (not far from my hometown), social upheaval and urban decay, the adults around me seemed unnerved. That said, like most kids I had no trouble putting all this aside for more important things, like throwing naked Barbies out the second floor window.

So what is your earliest memory of current events or politics? What did that event mean to you? Please share your comments below!