Or, a Massachusetts memory.
Thirty-seven, thirty-seven, thirty-seven. Today, 37 years ago, the 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon, resigned in his 37th address from the Oval Office.
I happened to catch, by accident, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All The President’s Men, in the wee hours this morning. I had not known of the anniversary, and, as per usual, all the “premium” channels were filled with crap, dreck and gore — mostly gore. And I remembered Watergate — I watched the Senate and House hearings on national television — remember the last time a congressional hearing riveted the nation? I don’t.
But since I hadn’t watched it in a long time, I re-watched and remembered Watergate. The Watergate burglars were caught by D.C. police and a security guard in the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. That summer, fresh from finishing my junior year in high school, I went to New Mexico Boy’s State in Roswell, New Mexico. I did well. I was elected a State Senator, but the Vietnam mentality was carefully underway, and neither body of the elected legislature was allowed more than a cursory meeting — for fear that we might make some “embarrassing” resolution or statement. Embarrassing to the American Legion, that is, who sponsor Boys’ and Girls’ States all over the USA.
(And I heard my first “Penthouse letters” as the Boys State Delegates from Albuquerque in the dorm room next door held a reading, but that has nothing to do with our narrative.)
Watergate was already underway. In Nixon’s America (and, to be fair, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago) dissent was the enemy of the “Silent Majority” who were sick to death of them hippies and their crazy stunts. Kent State was only two years in the past, and, bringing up the rear of the baby boom (doomed, we did not yet realize, to come to adulthood in the hideous vapidity of the Disco Era), we were merely shaggy, not long-haired. And, those who attended Boys State that year tended to be sports stars and student council presidents. There was very little to fear from them, controversy-wise. We debated “Amnesty” for draft-dodgers, and I remember arguing for the Affirmative in an incredibly hostile hall. Perhaps there were boos. Certainly there was ice. On the Negative, lusty football cheers were heard. And Watergate was already underway.
I attended my entire senior year, stuffed Zozobra for the Fiesta for Key Club, crunched in the New Mexico snow, played hearts in the library for study hall for nine straight months, learned to type, went to the Prom, debated all over New Mexico and in Phoenix, Arizona, worked after school and weekends the entire year, at Sauter Lincoln-Mercury and then sacking groceries at Furrs Supermarket — save for an abortive attempt to play basketball — and graduated from Santa Fe High School with Watergate in full swing.
“I have never been a quitter …”
I spent all summer working in the kitchen of The Compound restaurant on Canyon Road and then packed my bags and moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Watergate was going strong.
I went to college, finished my freshman year, got married, lost my virginity and took my first legal drink, and Watergate was STILL in full swing.
And then, a newlywed of two months and eight days, working at an experimental Gannett plant in Sudbury, Massachusetts, I watched an old black and white 14-inch TV as old Tricky Dick resigned the Presidency after a crime spree that turned out to be far worse than any of us had imagined.
Nixon was using the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, and all the rest to try to create a police state. He had hated Stalinism — which, face it, is NOT “communism,” but rather that good old authoritarian “I am Alpha Male, what I say goes” that has been humanity’s habitual form of governance since the first ape-man beat the first ape-woman into submission — had hated Stalinism for so long that he had become what he hated. Taping, burgling, lying and all the rest of it. Not G.W.B.’s Gitmo, perhaps, but at the time we were innocent enough to believe that stuff was WRONG.
What was always funny about Tricky Dick was that he always thought if he wasn’t getting rich and taking graft (as Spiro T. Agnew was busted for, in the form of envelopes of cash given to him when he was a Maryland public official) then he wasn’t breaking the law. The Checkers Speech is his famous denunciation (honestly) that he wasn’t corrupt because he wasn’t making money at it. He never seemed to notice the other corruptions. I guess keeping “Enemies Lists” didn’t tip him off.
“To leave office before my term is completed
is opposed to every instinct in my body”
And Watergate was not over yet, as the national debate began to roil about what kind of prison cell should we put Nixon in, and what sort of trial should we have.
Ford took Nixon off of the national stage, for which I thank him.
And THEN Watergate was over. More or less.
Still, in the period of Watergate, the economy tanked, and one of Ford’s first acts was to try the clumsy Whip Inflation Now (W.I.N. — and they’d send you a free WIN button) to try to stanch the runaway inflation partially engendered by unplugging the dollar from its regulated price of $35 dollars an ounce and allowing Americans to own gold again (an emergency measure of the Depression to keep the dollar viable) — which had the ultimate outcome that gold went to about $360 an ounce, where it remained for many years. And suddenly the nickel candy bar of the ’60s was now the fifty-cent candy bar of the eighties. The $3000 car of the 1960s became the $30,000 car of the Nineties. The $15,000 ranch-style two bedroom house of the Sixties became the $150,000 house of the 1990s.
And we got to pay off the Vietnam debt at ten cents on the dollar.
These hobbitses is tricksy. Going way back.
But what I really remember about the whole of Watergate is the lesson that sent 1975 and 1976 college underclassmen into Journalism majors in droves was the work of Woodward and Bernstein.
It was so trippy to see Robert Redford looking for a phone number in a Minneapolis phone book and then DIALING his phone, and taking reporter’s notes. And typing on an old manual typewriter. And the teletype at the end.
Hard to believe that those things so ubiquitous in my youth have quietly vanished from consciousness and appear suddenly as anachronisms, as forgotten halcyon. [sic]
Just good old fashioned reporting, and the fundamental belief that the truth will out. That the people have a RIGHT TO KNOW, and that no tin-pot would-be emperor is going to rule by decree and deadly debauch.
Bob Woodward, today
And the whole damned Vietnam madness was about a bunch of old men’s egos. We couldn’t be seen to be “weak.” Yeah. Had we pulled everything out after TET in 1968, the outcome would have been no different. The final fall of Saigon came in 1975, during Ford’s Presidency, perhaps fittingly enough, since Jerry Ford had been in the House of Representatives the whole time from the Gulf of Tonkin, and had faithfully voted for every war appropriation.
Gee. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of THAT blood and treasure back?
We finally basically got out of it by the Clinton Administration and, having no Commies to hate, the GOPs and old Dixiecrats turned on Clinton. The economy, however, had its longest run of peace and prosperity since the Coolidge Administration. But George screwed all that up.
Nixon’s gone now. And Bush is gone now, but their legacy of darkness lives on.
And, as America reels from the credit downgrade and the stock market shellacking, and the loss of thirty-plus Americans in Afghanistan, and an angry recall election in Wisconson tomorrow, it seems like Watergate all over again.
Tin Soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drummin’
Four dead in OH HI OH
Four dead in OH HI OH
Even back at Boy’s State, the guys in the dorm room next door (we were at New Mexico Military Institute) had a CSNY songbook and we played and sang the song on guitar. (Although, to be fair, we played “Cowgirl in the Sand” a lot more.) You could take the kids out of the Sixties, but you couldn’t take the Sixties out of the kids.
When Nixon resigned, they were playing Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” on Top-40 radio. And I was surrounded by Massachusetts bumpers bearing the sticker: “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.” (Which had been the only state — along with D.C.’s three electoral votes — to vote for McGovern in 1972.)
After all, it was Nixon, you will recall, who planted and nurtured the whole “the press is the enemy” meme that defines Republican politics today.
And it was young underdogs Woodward and Bernstein who managed to penetrate the layers of secrecy to get to the truth, and at that time, journalism was considered as noble a calling in America as you could find while remaining in the secular world.
Then, joining the military was something mildly shameful and becoming a journalist was considered something excessively noble.
Old Dick Nixon’s Dead and Gone.
A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.