- Historic Sites
II. The Final Act
A sometime “Nixon-hater” looks back on Watergate and discovers that his glee of a decade ago has given way to larger, sadder, and more generous emotions
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
If there were gleeful, hard-nosed scapegraces who watched Watergate that way, our laughter had, I confess, a paranoid nervousness much of the time. We could never feel sure that Nixon, Haig, and Kissinger would not engineer America’s first military take-over, in preference to its first presidential act of self-destruction. Not until we saw the final helicopter lift off from the White House garden could we really relax and enjoy it all.
I enjoy it less in perspective, and I sympathize more with the leading player. I have come to see Watergate not as a complete tragedy but as the last act of a terribly extended one, which opened in crazy violence with the assassination of John Kennedy.
It was Greek in form, rather than Elizabethan, a democratic rather than a royal tragedy. This was largely because of the participation of a chorus of around two hundred million. Much of the long sequence concerned the fall of the great Kennedy family, whose antagonist Nixon was. But interwoven was the division of a once-united nation, whose people passionately took sides on the conduct of a distant war and on the demands for power at home of their minorities—the blacks, the women, and the young.
Remembered in this way, it ended in Aristotelian catharsis. Richard Nixon was a doomed anti-hero, whose coerced self-sacrifice, with true irony, realized his campaign slogan in bringing us together. Remembered in this way, Watergate was what we needed.
There was almost exactly one decade between the assassination, in November 1963, and the onset of the resolution in irony, which I take to be President Nixon’s declaration, in November 1973: “I am not a crook.” Irony is that mode in which the audience understands that truth is the opposite of what is said, although the speaker genuinely believes his words.
I shall not try to itemize everything that happened in those ten American years. As a member of the chorus I was forty-one when they started, fifty-one when they ended, and can recall no other decade like it. The proliferation of dreadful events was so great that each of us will give them different emphases. There was the murder on-camera of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. There were the murders of civil rights workers in the South. There was the killing of Robert Kennedy. There was the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Terrorism swept the world, most incredibly in the slaughter of Israeli athletes and Arab commandos at the Munich Olympics.
There was the shooting of twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages at Attica, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. There was the killing of Sharon Täte and four others in Hollywood, of 109 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, of young revolutionaries in a Greenwich Village townhouse by their own bombs, of white students at Kent State by the National Guard, of black students at Jackson State College by state highway police, and the crippling by gunfire of George Wallace.
The natural deaths of the former mighty went relatively unremarked: Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson—and J. Edgar Hoover. The first man chosen to replace Hoover flunked his Senate confirmation hearing, and the man rumored to be next in line was Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr., just then presiding over a hearing of the Ellsberg case, which was going wrong for the administration.
An institution we thought as untouchable by scandal as the Supreme Court was tarnished by the resignation, under pressure, of Abe Portas, and by Congress finding first Judge Haynsworth, then Judge Carswell, unfit to replace him. The Vice-Président of the country, Spiro Agnew, was indicted on criminal charges and then plea-bargained with his colleagues at the Justice Department, resigned, and was fined and disbarred.
There were riots, disruptions of church and campus, the growth of the drug culture, and a great swelling up of civil disobedience, which involved, by the time of the move into Cambodia, uncountable numbers of us, chorus and antichorus. There was an actual, unarmed invasion of Washington by 250,000 people. It was, I believe, as I have written before, the time of America’s cold civil war.