Watching Watergate

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In late 1942, when I was eleven, my parents and I arrived in the United States, refugees from the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Fourteen members of my family were not as fortunate, and their ashes lie in the fields surrounding Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Sobibor.

Because of my early experiences I kept my antennae out, looking for danger. No American president appeared more perilous than Richard Nixon. After his performance on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and his campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, I felt sick when he was first elected in 1968, and even worse when he won re-election four years later. When George Wallace of Alabama could not run for another term in 1966, he had put up his wife Lurleen in his place, and I studied the Constitution to see if Nixon could pull the same stunt. I found no rule against it anywhere, which added to my paranoia. Nor were my fears allayed when Nixon commissioned those pompous uniforms for the White House guards.

So nothing made me happier than when Nixon overreached and found himself enmeshed in the Watergate scandal. As the story unfolded before Congressman Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee, I discussed each detail with my colleagues at work.

It was my thesis that as Commander in Chief, Nixon would surround the Congress with troops, end the impeachment hearings, dissolve the House and Senate, and rule as dictator. My co-workers told me I was crazy, that nothing like that could possibly happen in the United States. I countered that they were hopelessly naive. Hadn’t we massacred the Indians? Hadn’t we interned the Japanese during World War II? What made our country different from any other? Our discussions settled nothing, but when events played themselves out to the bitter end and Nixon resigned, my friends said, “We told you so.”

Deep down, I still thought I was right. Maybe the worst hadn’t happened, but it could have happened, even in these United States.

Now move the calendar ahead to 1980. I was working for a pharmaceutical corporation in New Jersey and had traveled with a few associates to Washington to make a presentation before the Federal Drug Administration. We finished up on Friday afternoon and headed for the airport to catch the four o’clock shuttle to Newark. This turned out to be the same time the New Jersey congressional delegation flew home for the weekend, and to my surprise and delight I found myself in line right behind Congressman Rodino.

He was very chatty, as behooves an elected official speaking to a potential voter, and it wasn’t very long before I asked him the question that had plagued me for six years. “When you were presiding over the impeachment hearings for Richard Nixon,” I began, “did it ever occur to you and your colleagues that he could call out the military, have you all surrounded, and end the proceedings with a coup d’état?”

“Not only did we think about it,” Mr. Rodino answered, “we did something about it right at the beginning. We called the commanding generals of every base within 500 miles and told them that if they received any orders from the White House to march on Washington, not to move until they checked with us.”

I felt vindicated. I may have been paranoid, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Readers are invited to submit their own personal “brushes with history,” for which our regular rates will be paid on publication. Unfortunately, we can not promise to correspond about or return submissions.