The Summer of ’73, Redux

The midsummer sun has lately been exceedingly hot here on the southern plains, with the latest breaking national news even hotter yet, and it’s all somehow redolent of that long ago summer of ’73.
We were just young punks about to turn a typically surly 13 years old, but even then we were engrossed by politics, and by far the most engrossing story of the day was the unfolding Watergate scandal. The whole Watergate thing started slowly back in ’72 with a routine burglary bust, but by the summer of ’73 the only three channels on the television were all preempting the afternoon soap operas and game shows to broadcast the live congressional hearings about it, and we took time out from our long-distance bike rides and driveway basketball games and other summer vacation adventures to watch it all. We also read every word about in the morning and afternoon newspapers that our parents subscribed to, along with the newsmagazines that arrived in the mailbox, and then learned more when we’d biked all the way to downtown library’s impressive periodical shelf.
To this day we still recall E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy and the three Cubans who were busted in the burglary, and the turncoat White House advisor Howard Dean and his crazy wife Moe and the loyal Attorney John Mitchell and his crazy wife Martha and fellow loyalist who wound up making the news in the subsequent investigations, and presidential secretary Rosemary Woods who was blamed for a suspicious gap in the White House tapes that eventually surfaced We still know the names of Judge John Sirica who ordered those tapes and made some other crucial legal rulings, and the Attorney General Elliot Richardson who was fired by President Richard Nixon for refusing to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and an obscure fellow named Robert Bork who eventually stepped up to do the firing.
We’d bet all our winnings that we can still run the Watergate category in a round of “Jeopardy!,” but even the surliest young punks of today know that it all somehow wound up with Nixon resigning in disgrace. That’s pretty much the long and short of the whole Watergate affair and all you’d need to know to pass a junior high history quiz about it, but of course there’s a lot worth noting in between.
The whole sordid saga began when a third-shift janitor at the swank Washington, D.C., hotel-and-office Watergate complex noticed some tape on the door lock to the Democratic National Committee. He was streetwise enough to know to call the local cops, who promptly showed up to arrest the aforementioned Hunt and Liddy and three Cubans who were attempting to install a wiretap in the office, and two relatively young and still on late-night duty reporters as the local Washington Post who were assigned the crime story story were astute enough to discover they were all official and fully paid employees of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
That was a bad enough start to the story, if not so bad that a forthright acknowledgement but stern disavowal of the operation and its operatives would have ended all the hubbub, but the Nixon administration took a typically more dismissive response. They denied everything, attacked The Washington Post and The New York Times and the three television networks who were making such a big deal about one presidential campaign breaking and entering to bug the headquarters of another, and wound up on national television admitting to the hush money they paid to the burglars and all sorts of other sorts of other things that were considered scandalous at the time. An Admiral in the administration whose last name we still remember was Butterfield told a televised committee that the White House had taped everything, and Sirica got his hands on the tapes and except for that 18-and-a-half-minute gap blamed on the White House secretary it seemed all the prosecutor needed for an impeachment case. It was bad enough that Nixon fired the guy who wouldn’t fire the guy who was running the investigation, and shortly after that the impeccably conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was leading a congressional delegation of Republicans to tell him that resignation in disgrace was the only honorable option.
Which was bad for the country in ways that the surly 13-year-old punks of today probably can’t understand. The first presidential election we’d followed was back in ’68, when Nixon edged out a plurality win over Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace, and we were for Nixon. Our grandparents were all New Deal Democrats, but our parents had rebelled against by voting for the impeccably conservative Goldwater in ’64, by ’68 all three generation were agreed that Democrats had gone crazy left. Humphrey was tied to President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, which was a bloody big deal that hurt him with all the hippies that were suddenly popping up everywhere, and although Nixon was also for the war he seemed to want to win it, which was the way Americans used to end wars back then. Wallace was still an outright racist at that point, and our cosmopolitan and Christian parents had taught us better than that, so Nixon and his surprisingly pristine civil rights voting record was the one.
By ’72 the hippies had taken over the Democratic party and nominated far-left South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president, and it was fine with us that Nixon won re-election with a popular and electoral vote margin that not even President Franklin Roosevelt had ever achieved. As bloody as the Vietnam situation was Nixon’s peace with honor platform made more sense than McGovern’s plan of complete surrender, and as much as we liked the rock ‘n’ roll music and sexual frisson of the Democratic counter-culture we had an instinctive multi-generational affinity for the Silent Majority of hard-working and tax-paying and lawn-mowing and baby-having Americans who gave Nixon his landslide win.
We were surly soon-to-be-13-year-old punks, though, and the weird sorts who were already enamored of unfettered free-market capitalism and other sorts of rugged individualism that left all those hippies in the dust, so we also had our doubts about Nixon. When the unemployment and inflation rates divulged in ways that free market theory hadn’t anticipated he embraced wage-and-price controls that not even the hippies would have dared, and despite his pristine civil rights record and reasonably tough stance against all the inner-city rioting that was going on he was the first president to institute racial quotas, and the notorious cold warrior even normalized relations with the commie Chinese and pursued “detente” with the commie Russkies. We still liked that he stood steadfast against the hippies and The Washington Post and The New York Times and those three damned channels on the television, but by that point we were wondering he might think of us.
And so we watched with a certain disinterested horror as it all slowly wound up a year or so later with Nixon flashing his “V for victory” sign as he boarded an ex-presidential helicopter to exit the White House after resigning in disgrace. He was replaced by the impeccably honorable but utterly ineffectual President Gerald Ford, who didn’t have the political clout to order the air strikes that might have maintained the peace with honor that Nixon and all those soldiers and sailors and airmen had won in Vietnam, and the best he could do about all the inflation and unemployment that defied free market theory was to print up some buttons. Despite all that he was only narrowly defeated by the Democrats’ putatively centrist Jimmy Carter, who four years later lost in a landslide to the Goldwaterite Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. That led to an inflation-choking but otherwise severe recession that shortly thereafter led to an unprecedented economic boom, which led to an even bigger re-election landslide than Nixon or Roosevelt or anyone else ever achieved, and despite that admittedly embarrassing Iran-Contra scandal and other things we mostly enjoyed those Reagan years.
The commies were pretty much gone by the end of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s third term of the Reagan age, but during a time of relatively mild economic recession that only made a plurality of the public more willing to elect the southern and putatively centrist Democrat Bill Clinton and his equally hideous wife. Despite Clinton’s efforts the economic boom continued well enough that he survived the impeachment trials of his various sex scandals and won another plurality re-election, but that wound up with eight years of Republican George W. Bush. That was mostly OK by us, but what with all the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that he’d been obliged by circumstances to do, and another ill-timed and far more severe recession, it led to eight straight years of President Barack Obama
We spent the entire eight Obama years griping about that unrelenting catastrophe, but at the end of it we wound up with the choice of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or the Republican nominee Donald Trump. For the first time in our lives we wound up voting for none of the above, and resigned ourselves to watching the inevitable scandals that would play out not matter who won. Clinton had been in the public eye for all the 30 or more years that her cheating husband had been in office, and had plenty of undeniably disqualifying scandals of her own, but Trump was a political neophyte whose long and legendary career in the private sector was no more reassuring.
When we subjected Trump’s campaign to the due diligence that you’d apply to anyone else you might invest in, we found that he’d had three wives and countless bragged-about married mistresses and four bankruptcies at his casinos and strip clubs, which are hard businesses to screw up, as well as a long history of failure in steaks and vodka and football leagues and airlines and scam universities and various other enterprises, so we didn’t much cotton to him no matter how much we hated that Clinton woman. His sons had boasted to the press about how much funding their business empire had coming from the Russkies despite all the bankruptcies, and Trump himself was so pro-Russkie that he told a fan hosting a Fox News show that the the Russkies’ killings of journalists and other dissidents was no worse than what routinely happens in America, so all of that gave us pause about the guy.
We weren’t about to vote for that awful Clinton woman, but from the outset all the preliminary stories about Russia and Trump looked pretty bad. By election day it was reliably reported from all the intelligence agencies that the Russkies had launched a three-pronged cyber attack on America’s election, Trump was clearly running on the most Russia-friendly platform in the history of the United States much less its Republican Party, even more friendly than that awful Clinton woman and her ridiculous leftist “reset” button, and there was already something ominously redolent of that summer of ’73.
Since then the president’s national security advisor has resigned and his attorney general has recused himself from Russia-related matters because of Russian ties, and his son and son-in-law and former campaign chairman have been invited to testify before congressional committees about their current Russkie relations, which will likely be broadcast live on national television, and there’s something all too familiar about it. There’s another special prosecutor who’s currently looking into the president’s world-wide financial holdings, which he’s held on to in a way that no previous president ever dared to do, and we can’t shake the same old sense from ’73 that sooner or later he’s bound to come up with something pretty damning.
Which is also a damned shame, because Trump was elected by the same plurality of tax-paying and law-abiding and baby-having and lawn-mowing Americans who beat back all those dirty hippies in ’72, and we’re still rooting for them. It would be another outrage to see The Washington Post and The New York Times and those congressional committees and special prosecutors and the rest of those dirty hippies score another win, but we’ve been through this before, and on another decade’s hot midsummer’s night we’ll only hope that the truth will prevail and things work out best in the long run.
The news these days seems somehow disturbingly familiar to way back then, but also disturbingly different. As crazy a leftist loon as that McGovern guy was he’d flown more than the requisite number of bombing missions over Germany during World War II, and even then nobody questioned his patriotism. As relatively right-wing as Nixon was in the early ’70s none of his critics ever mocked the decorated military officer and historically vindicated congressional cold warrior and former Vice President as an historically illiterate and poorly-spoken buffoon, and his outreaches to communist China and Russia arguably kept the peace long enough for Reagan’s more confrontational stance to win the Cold War. In retrospect, that awful election of ’72 seems like the good old days.
The testimony of the president’s son and son-in-law and former campaign chairman will probably preempt the soap operas and games before the summer is over, and although we’re still somehow part of that still-extant silent majority we don’t expect it will go well. Already the president’s son has admitted he responded to a newfangled e-mail promising the Russkie’ commitment to til an American election by saying “I love it,’ which is a hell of a place to start, and the president is stating that anyone would have taken that meeting, so that’s also a bad starting point.
A couple of years before Nixon headed off in ignominy on that helicopter, which was was just a couple of years before the helicopters launched off the South Vietnamese embassy with a bunch of our last-ditch allies making a futile effort to cling the skids, it was already clear to us that the Watergate scandal wouldn’t end well for anybody. As much as it pains us to alarm those good tax-paying and law-abiding and lawn-mowing members of the silent majority that we still love, this time around doesn’t look to turn out any better.

— Bud Norman

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