- 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
As to the scandal, there was no feel yet of historic weight, since nothing could touch Nixon. The Bernstein and Woodward stories broke in October, and whatever their effect in Washington, they did nothing to stop the countrywide landslide in November. In January, after the Inauguration, Nixon’s Gallup-poll popularity was at an all-time high of 68 percent. In terms of classic tragedy it was the kind of pinnacle from which the mighty fall, but I had no sense of that at all yet. Senator Ervin might be getting ready to investigate, Judge Sirica might declare himself dissatisfied, but my faith in the legislative and judicial check and balance was not stirred from lethargy.
In May, when Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Kleindienst had to resign, when John Dean was fired and a special prosecutor appointed, the Ervin hearings began to play on television. They were fascinating, titillating, a jolly time—still nothing majestic. We went off to Spain that August feeling that some bad guys had been caught for something pretty silly. We read about it through the fall and winter in the International Herald Tribune .
The gods of democracy, known to us through their sacred writings—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—were as inexorable as any.
When I got home in April 1974, the final Watergate summer was about to begin—things were tenser and more serious. Even so, perhaps because I had seen so many resurrections of Richard Nixon, I could not hope that, with the power of the Presidency supporting him, he would find himself unable to survive in office. It is another irony that inevitability is not apparent while it is operating.
The last thing that I imagined then was that, with retrospect enough, the fallen President would have something more than my sympathy. But let me make the retrospect complete.
I was not aware of Richard Nixon when he first became prominent. In the late forties, when, as a congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he led the charge against Alger Hiss, I did not notice any of the personalities involved other than those of Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. I blocked it out, I guess, as being too damn sad. I was twenty-six, just out of the Army, just married, just published, just graduated from college. There were a lot of identities to be lined up and dressed right, and my political identity—was I a radical or a liberal?—was not in the front rank. (Radical or liberal, in 1948, meant Wallace or Truman; I voted for Truman and have been voting for him ever since.)
But by 1950 Tina and I were established on the West Coast. I was working for the San Francisco Chronicle , Tina as a volunteer in Helen Gahagan Douglas’s campaign for the Senate. It was then that we became aware that there was some nasty little party out of Southern California named Nixon, selling what we were learning to call “guilt by association,” in a successful attempt to misrepresent Mrs. Douglas as pro-Communist I mention this to support my claim of long standing as a Nixon-hater, though it also shows that there are those who have more seniority. Still, it was a smallish club until the Checkers speech, when Nixon was running for Vice-Président. There are two points I want to make in connection with this:
First, the speech and the situation leading to it—Nixon’s secret support fund—gave Eisenhower a clear chance to revise the ticket if he had wanted to. He did not want to. That Ike expressed genial satisfaction with his man means one of two things: either he was himself a sucker for the Checkers speech or he saw political value for himself in the mind and character of the man who made it. At this time of reassessment of Dwight Elsenhower’s Presidency, much of which seems to be favorable, I want strenuously to object: the anointment of Nixon was a very significant part of Eisenhower’s legacy to us—just as, in what deserves heavy emphasis on the final word, part of Nixon’s legacy was to have been the placement of Spiro Agnew in the line of descent. Each President, after all, chose the same Vice-Président twice.
The second point about my twenty-five years as a Nixon-hater is dubious, obscure, as difficult to express as it is to acknowledge. When I call him the agent of our national catharsis, do I not call myself a Nixon-lover too? We cannot expel, in catharsis, that which is not in us. I am not speaking of something remote and merely symbolic, but of real personal qualities, dark qualities, which he and I always shared. I will choose just one of these:
“I feel ill at ease with the prominent,” Nixon said, as quoted by Lou Cannon of the Washington Post in an illuminating piece in The Fall of a President , a book by the Post’s staff. Cannon goes on to quote “a Republican,” who said: “Nixon doesn’t really have the traits he admires in other men, which is to say he’s not strong physically, graceful, coordinated, handsome. He is impressed by people who appear to be tough or know the answers. …” Cannon cites a former White House staff member who recalls that Nixon always watched John Connally in Cabinet meetings: “Connally always seemed so sure of himself. The old man liked that. He wanted to be like Connally. ”