- 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
It would be inaccurate to let that evocation of the decade stand without recalling some of the brighter things. The Woodstock Music Festival was one, perhaps, in August 1969. President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 was more certainly another. But the finest was the great five-day period, back in 1969 again, that started July 16 with the lift-off of Apollo 11 for the moon. At the climax, on July 20, we watched Neil Armstrong swing down the ladder to the moon’s surface. It was thrilling, like V-E Day, like the news of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, which I think I remember, though I was only five years old then.
There was some awe in the moon-landing, too, like the awe we felt when we heard of, but did not comprehend, Hiroshima. And there was a rueful counterpoint, as television brought us, interspersed, the haunting news from Chappaquiddick.
Now let me report a passage of domestic conversation. It took place between my son and me in Barcelona, during Watergate days. It is a measure of how long the affair went on that my family and I could have left for Spain fifteen months after the break-in, and after the chief disclosures of the Senate Watergate hearings, stayed abroad for eight months, and returned to find things still erupting—indictments, sentencings, new evidence, tapes, and the opening of the formal House Judiciary hearings on impeachment. The final Watergate summer was about to start. The resignation was still four months away.
I don’t recall the actual date of the Barcelona conversation, or what prompted me to make my curious little speech. Philip was fifteen then. I think we were in the kitchen of our middle-class apartment. We may have been making paella.
“When I was a boy,” I told him, “I can remember settling down in bed some nights, and drifting comfortably off to sleep with a wonderful feeling of gratitude that I’d been born American, not Chinese or Bulgarian or something. It must have been my equivalent of what religious children get from saying their prayers—to feel blessed, one of the chosen. America had the best government, the finest roads, the soundest money, the mightiest industry, the greatest resources. We were a free, just, and generous people, good people. We did not lose wars, either. An American was just the best and luckiest thing you could be.”
Philip heard me out carefully, and his reply was meant to comfort: “Gee, Dad. It must have been nice to feel that way.”
And at first I was surprised to think that he never had, and then, knowing that he’d been five and aware when JFK was killed, and growing up since, I wasn’t surprised any more.
We were in Iowa—living on our farm outside Iowa City, where I had been teaching at the university for some years and was active in protest and politics—when the Watergate break-in occurred. That was June 17, 1972. Three months later I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, having put an ad in the local paper that began, “It’s been a long, hot half-century…” and ended by inviting anyone who liked, friend or stranger, to drop by the farm that day to help us cool out. Several hundred people came, some of them bringing (as the ad suggested they might, but only if they felt like it) contributions to George McGovern’s presidential campaign.
Even though Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars had already been indicted, don’t believe we discussed it. Watergate seemed minor, clumsy, small-time.
We gathered on the bank of the lower farm pond, in the bright fall sun, drank some beer and even champagne—if it sounds like an occasion that would have included political banter, it was. But even though my birthday is on September 17, and Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars had just been indicted on the fifteenth, I don’t believe Watergate came up. It still seemed such a minor thing, clumsy, scummy, small-time crud-as-usual. We were too inured to the big shocks to pay much attention to a small one. McGovern had tried using Watergate to attack the opposition, comparing the break-in to Nazi tactics. The Republicans sneered at him for intemperate reference, and I was a little embarrassed for him, agreeing that it was overreaction.
We might have nominated George McGovern, but we never really made him our leader, any more than we believed he could be elected. He was something like Cassandra, whom the populace ignores, and we, his supporters, were a lost-cause bunch: I’d been a Shirley Chisholm delegate to the Johnson County Democratic Convention during that election season.