by JIM KNIPFEL
August 16, 2009
A Goddamned Ding-Dong Battle
Every time I visit my parents, one or the other pulls out a box of stuff—old toys, report cards, essays I wrote in grade school, and pictures I drew. For a while there, I used to draw a lot. In and among the pictures of plane crashes and imaginary scenes from Planet of the Apes are two I remember clearly—my portraits of Richard Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy, drawn when I was nine years old.
Given the way I generally feel toward political hoodoo, I can’t say for sure why I became so obsessed with Watergate when I was eight years old, but I did, and for everything that’s happened since—perhaps because of everything that’s happened since—that obsession never fully went away.
My dad was in the military and both parents were Republicans, so I became aware of Richard Nixon early, by the time I was four or five (if not earlier). There was something about the figure I saw on the television—the hangdog, unshaven face and the voice—that caught my attention. I remember thinking that his head wasn’t shaped like other people’s, and that was interesting.
In those early days, Nixon was presented to me as an honorable man who was doing the right thing in Vietnam—and things over there would be going a lot better if it weren’t for all those dirty hippies messing things up over here. I wasn’t just taught this at home—it’s what I heard in school, at church, and on the street. You didn’t hear many people around town badmouthing Nixon. Green Bay didn’t boast much of a hippie population that I was aware of. I was only conscious of the hippies the same way I was conscious of Nixon—they were on the TV and my dad talked about them. But from all I heard, Nixon was the good guy and the hippies were the bad guys. Nothing but troublemakers who spit at my dad.
Then Watergate broke, and for some reason I became very excited. I don’t know why. I didn’t really understand much of anything they were talking about on the news or during the hearings—hush money and cover-ups and plumbers. As I planted myself in front of the TV every day to watch the hearings, I wasn’t even fully aware who most of the players were. I don’t think I was alone in that. Still, it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen, and in spite of my ignorance I found it compelling. The president, for some reason, had hired some plumbers to break into an office and leave some bugs there. I didn’t know why you’d hire plumbers to do something like that, and I didn’t know why plumbers would be scattering cockroaches around someone’s office, but jeez—the President had done something really weird and bad and all of a sudden people were saying he’d done a lot of other weird and bad things.
It was the first time I can remember being conscious of wanting something really awful to happen. Even if I didn’t fully understand the circumstances, I wanted to see Nixon “impeached”—whatever that was. I wanted to see him removed from office and thrown in jail. Not because I had anything against Nixon—I didn’t. I just wanted something bad to happen because it would be exciting.
I remember a few scenes from the hearing quite vividly. I remember a man I now know to be John Dean talking about a cancer in the White House. I remember a man I now know was Sam Ervin yelling at someone. He reminded me of Foghorn Leghorn. And I remember G. Gordon Liddy—I knew his name at the time—raising his hand to take the oath. But when he was asked if he swore to tell the truth, he said “No.”
Liddy was my hero for a long time after that, and I still have my first edition of Will on the shelf behind me.
After Nixon resigned, I became even more fascinated with him and with Watergate. I began collecting books on the subject, from All the Presidents Men to the condensed version of the hearing transcripts released a few years later. I think it was with The Final Days—Woodward and Bernstein’s book—that I finally started to understand what a sleazy, crazy, drunken character Nixon had been. And that made him all the more interesting to me. Ranting and raving around the Oval Office, making Henry Kissinger pray with him, keeping a list of enemies, destroying evidence.
In the years following Watergate, I remember hearing a lot of people saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad—every president does stuff like that. Nixon’s only mistake was getting caught.” Of course when you get into the details of what he did you realize that it was pretty bad. But when you hear people say “it wasn’t so bad” again and again when you’re a kid, it tends to alter your attitude toward the government. Although I was born during the Johnson administration, Nixon was the first president I was conscious of. If he did this and it was considered small potatoes by most people, what else had I missed? A whole new world of corruption and potential corruption opened up to me. I was never able to look at politicians of any stripe with the tiniest smidgen of respect again. I was suddenly suspicious of all of them.
It’s interesting (to me, anyway) to consider how counterintuitive the lasting effects of Watergate really were. At the same time people were saying it was no big deal, they were also saying “Nixon’s shenanigans were uncovered and stopped. The system works, and that should make any future president think twice.”
Well, it didn’t. From Iran-Contra to Clinton’s various transgressions (and I’m not talking about the sex) to the second Bush administration, we’ve seen things that really do make Watergate look like nothing more than a third-rate burglary. The difference is, even as these things were uncovered, the public just didn’t care. They let it slide. They were less than complacent—they expected it. And as a result, none of the responsible parties have suffered any real repercussions.
Hell, maybe the virtue of the Bush administration was that after stealing an election, setting up a shadow government, concentrating power in the executive branch, throwing people in prison without charge, using widespread surveillance on their own people, and so many other things, they didn’t even try to cover it up. They were open and blatant about what they were doing. Christ, they released press statements saying “this is what we’re doing, and you can’t stop us.” And nobody did. Makes you wonder what we didn’t know about.
In retrospect, Nixon seems almost quaint. And it leaves me wondering with no little dread what sort of nonsense we can expect in the coming years.
As with most everything these days, I’m reminded (yet again) of something Nietzsche wrote about 130 years ago:
A man who has depths in his shame meets his destiny and his delicate decisions upon paths which few ever reach, and with regard to the existence of which his nearest and most intimate friends may be ignorant; his mortal danger conceals itself from their eyes, and equally so his regained security. Such a hidden nature, which instinctively employs speech for silence and concealment, and is inexhaustible in evasion of communication, desires and insists that a mask of himself shall occupy his place in the hearts and heads of his friends; and supposing he does not desire it, his eyes will some day be opened to the fact that there is nevertheless a mask of him there--and that it is well to be so. Every profound spirit needs a mask; nay, more, around every profound spirit there continually grows a mask, owing to the constantly false, that is to say, superficial interpretation of every word he utters, every step he takes, every sign of life he manifests.
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