Saturday, September 8, 2007

Thirtythree years ago this August

I remember the day Richard Nixon resigned. It was August of ‘74. Thirtythree years ago. I was about to turn thirteen and I was on vacation with my mother. We were staying, of all places, at The Watergate Hotel. I remember the gift shop in the lobby was selling these little figurines of a bumble bee like creature called “The Watergate Bug.” We had spent the day touring the Smithsonian and were cooling off back in the room and there he was on television, finally owning up (at least a little bit) and announcing that he would spare the country any further agony.

My first thought was “Oh geez, what’s Dad gonna say about this?”

My father was back home in Massachusetts. Let’s just say he wasn’t one of those people driving around with the “don’t blame me” bumperstickers. He had defended ‘Tricky Dick’ all along. Not that he liked him all that much —one of his favorite arguments against Nixon’s accusers was that the man was too self-centered and ruthless (and too smart) to involve himself in this cover up. “He would just throw those people to the wolves,” Dad insisted. As I think back on it now, I guess my dad was something of a pragmatist, cynical in a way. He argued that many of the traits that made Nixon somewhat despicable as a person, made him an effective president. He was hard-nosed, yes, to a point of ruthlessness, but it was a harsh world. Nixon was a realist. The one most important aspect though, in my father’s book: He was an honest man.

Now it was coming to an end. What would Dad say? We’d both watched the hearings on television. Jowely old Sam Ervin and his “I’m just an ol’ country lawyer” routine. John Dean, his wife with the hair pulled back so hard she couldn’t blink, Haldeman and Ehrlichman,all gray flannel finesse and dead pan denial, Gordon Liddy’s strange interface with life on our actual planet. We’d watched it all, and through it all my father had argued for faith in Richard Nixon’s ever more tortured honesty. “He’s ruthless, he’s petty, he’s vainglorious, but he’s a man of his word!”

Now... oh geez.

It was actually quite a while before my father could even talk about it. What I remember most about his first reaction was his comment that he was more entitled to be angry with the man than anyone. Those who had accused Nixon and were now proven right, they could at least enjoy an ‘I told you so’ alongside their righteous indignation. My father was the one who had been betrayed. “I believed him!” he said with a wounded bewilderment in his voice.

I’ve thought of my father a lot over the past few years. My generation has its own hard-nosed pragmatic war to deal with. And lately we’ve had our own parade of government suits and claims of “executive privilege” (we might even be in dire need of an ‘ol’ country lawyer’ sometime soon!) I’ve thought of my dad and that August, 33 years ago now.

He used to love to talk politics. More precisely, he used to love to argue politics (nothing galled him more than people who nodded in agreement with him). We spent a good number of years trying to make sense of the Nixon presidency. Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton gave us plenty to chew on as well. (I suffered the tortures of the damned throughout the Clinton administration. I worked much harder than George Stephanopoulos ever did. And I never got paid a dime.) Through it all, my dad cut a fairly conservative course and I was the liberal counterpoint. We could argue long and loud and we did, often. But as we argued we also tried to make sense of things. And every now and then we’d agree.

Maybe that got a little easier as the politics aged into history. We would eventually come to a consensus that Nixon wasn’t so enlightened and effective after all, that there was such a thing as hard-nosed folly. My concession in the debate was that my father was right, honesty was the most important aspect. My father proudly claimed his rank and privilege as being the most aggrieved party to realize that point. We agreed that the cast of characters and co-conspirators from the Nixon White House had been a danger to this country and what it stood for, that the country and the Constitution had been sorely tested, and that, for all the contention and crisis, we had passed that test, we were a better country for it.

Spying on our own citizenry, using the facilities of government for political gamesmanship, collusion and obstruction, listing enemies among our own people and turning the force of the state against them: this was frightening folly indeed, but our constitutional government survived. The abuse of power had led an American president to lose that power.

That was something we could all be proud of. Thirtythree years ago this August.

Orinally Published August 07 in Metrowest Daily News

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