Memories of Watergate

I watched a lot of news tonight. It’s a historic day when a former president’s home is searched for classified documents.

I was thinking about my dad and remembering how we setup the reel-to-reel beside the TV, in August of 1974, to record Nixon’s resignation speech. That was a momentous event.

I was a senior in high school and remember it vividly, and warmly, as a dad time. The whole family watched Nixon resign, but I got to help my dad configure the tape recorder in preparation. Those moments, memories, really, of tutelage from my father (whether it be hitting a backhand, straightening a shoe stock room, doing the snow plow, developing a negative, or prepping a reel-to-reel tape recorder, are wonderful memories. (I still wonder whatever happened to that tape; we never listened to it).

I was a big Watergate fan from the beginning, even before Nixon’s 2nd inauguration in January of ’73, which I attended. I went to that inauguration, and parade, with Tapi Hayrinen, our exchange student from Finland, and Boyd Gilman, a great high school friend. Exchange students were less common back then, and we got special treatment from our Republican Congressman, Earl Ruth. I remember being fairly close to the front, unlike the other inauguration I attended — Clinton’s first. I went to that one with my friend Robert Jones. We had tickets, but Bill and Ms. Angelou were a long ways off. I was close to Nixon, but not a fan. I did respect the occasion, however, as a historic event, and only joined the hecklers a couple of times.

In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, Peter Tennent and I attended two days of the Watergate hearings, watching Sam Ervin grill Bob Haldeman. Peter was a beloved classmate of mine who unfortunately passed away last year. In fact, Peter and I were close friends before we were classmates. We went to different elementary schools — but our parents were best friends and our families did everything together throughout our childhoods — including some extremely large and eventful Post/Tennent beach vacations. Both families had five children. Peter and Boyd and I were all on the tennis team together.

Peter and I stayed up all night, keeping our places in line with other Watergate hearing audience members, listening to political types share their takes, two nights in a row, on the sidewalk in front of the building. This was in August of 1973, almost exactly one year before Nixon’s resignation.

The last time I saw Peter was at his mother’s funeral, less than a year before he passed. He brought up that Watergate experience and we talked about it, remembering it differently. Oddly enough, the thing I remember most about the trip is a terrifying hitchhiking experience that involved a pot smoking driver, a blue light, and a speeding car that took the cop away from us. Peter remembered other things about the trip, but that part of it did not make an impression. It’s interesting how we remember the stories that we share, and as we share them, we shape them, until what actually happened is so long ago and completely ethereal, such that the story is its own creation. I remember that Haldeman and CIA Director Helms testified, but I only heard about the contents of those hearings later, on TV. After standing on the sidewalk all night, two nights in a row, I pretty much dozed through the hearings.

We certainly don’t need a tape recorder to capture events these days. In the age of iPhones and unlimited storage, everything is available anytime. As the talk of political violence gets louder, every moment of this civil war is being captured on video.

Watching Fox News is upsetting, but I did watch a few minutes last night. It’s amazing to see the different views of the same event: an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago (which is all we really know).

On CNN and MSNBC, it’s exciting news. Lots of talking heads are speculating about what classified documents were illegally removed from the White House. You could say that we progressives are excited because we think Trump is a con man and a mob boss, and we want him punished for what he did to our democracy. 

Or you could say that we want the 2020 election to be over. If Trump were convicted of a crime that prohibited him from running again, then he would be done running — and we’re tired of it. An election ends when a candidate concedes, and Trump has denied this country the experience of completing 2020. People need completion.

On Fox, the context is Biden doing something to Trump, making Trump a victim. Being a victim, of course, is a default context for living life. It’s not satisfying, but it’s powerful in the realm of politics. All stories need sympathetic characters, and every show has a victim. It’s also easy. While being responsible is much harder, being a victim is natural and takes little effort. Both sides are good at it. Trump is the master. He can spin anything into a victim number, and the FBI search is great material for that.

As the helicopters swirl around Mar-a-Lago (presumably hoping to catch sight of what Trump called a raid, we see the being of victim become reality TV performance art. He could turn over the documents or say something about why he won’t — but claiming raid is better TV. He’s also nurturing and developing a large group of apprentices and opening acts. That said, victimhood in leadership leads to danger when the vicim-in-chief presents violence as a positive thing.