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II. The Final Act

July 2024
11min read

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

AT THE TIME OF Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency, columnists, politicians, and other sages spoke woefully of the tragedy of Watergate, or the trauma of Watergate, depending on whether their sense of language was Shakespearean or psychiatric. They were, in either case, Washington folk, and apparently not much aware that many of us, out in the country, looked on the thing more as the triumph of Watergate, or even, depending on the length of our standing as Nixon-haters, the Watergate comedy hour—with Groucho Liddy, Harpo Hunt in the red wig, and the President as Zeppo, the straight brother who sings at the end of the show. Martha Mitchell was perfect as Margaret Dumont, and there were several candidates for Chico, Charles Colson for one, though my favorite was Donald Segretti, the busy young California lawyer who signed himself on as an expert in dirty tricks.


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.

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.”

I HAD NEVER THOUGHT of myself as indoctrinated in the way that, say, Catholic children are, but of course I had been, by the daily Pledge of Allegiance at school, by the way our history was taught, by the “Star-Spangled Banner” as it opened games and ceremonies, by a Midwestern girl for a mother and an immigrant father who knew he’d landed in the right place.

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.

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. ”

YES, DAMN IT . I used to watch Connally with exactly the same feeling, though more in fear than admiration. Thinking of him calls up that whole feeling of inadequacy, of being an outsider, of not belonging. A circle is closing: once I felt that way about John Kennedy, with the balance between fear and admiration reversed.

I am speaking, then, of the great American inferiority complex, one of the few items of psychiatric jargon to become a phrase in popular culture. For it, we overcom pensate quite splendidly at our best, and maybe cheat and lie a little at our worst.

So I come, at long last, to a sense of brotherhood with Richard Nixon. Marx-brotherhood? No. The comic view of it all is more deeply buried than I realized, and what I took then for the gibbering of partisan clowns I hear now as the cries of the stricken, the weeping of the well-intentioned, and the mourning of the just.

WHEN THE CHORUS , in a Greek choral ode, moved from right to left, the words it spoke were called the strophe. When it moved from left to right, they were called the antistrophe, and my memoir seems to be moving now in that direction. I am moved to many recantations. Let this one stand for all: Martha Mitchell. Was she really the straight woman in a slapstick hour? No, she was actually, long before Bernstein and Woodward’s sources, the first person to try to speak out on Watergate, and without prompting, just four days after the break-in. Whatever we understand about what moved her to it, Martha Mitchell called the press to try to tell of “all the dirty things that are going on”—and her telephone was ripped off the wall by one of Pat Gray’s FBI men. She was held prisoner, she said during a second call, thrown down and forcibly sedated by a hypodermic to keep her quiet.

No one paid much attention back then, certainly not I. I was too used to taking her for a kind of female Agnew to feel like anything but chuckling.


We watched the final summer, my wife and I, Philip sometimes, through the eyes of Dan Rather at five-thirty every evening. The watching was compulsive and mostly silent. If we talked about it some among ourselves, it was muted. It never did become a lively topic of Iowa conversation, but not because anyone dismissed it any longer. We just didn’t expose our feelings, or chance offending those of others. At university parties, after tennis, at the Windham Garage where the farmers met, we spoke of other things and hurried home at network news time. We watched our district representative in Congress, Ed Mezvinsky, who was on the Judiciary Committee, vote for impeachment one day. Though we were friends, I had no will to phone or write to him about it.

It was, I think, because we felt, unconsciously, the time of our division coming to an end. We must not risk, by chattering, hubris , which is the arrogance of setting oneself among the gods. Nixon had risked it for us, and the gods of democracy, known to us through their sacred writings—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—were as inexorable as any. We saw our scapegoat struggle. We watched him go down. And through him came, I now believe, a restoration of faith, a cleansing, and the lifting of an enormous burden.

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