Watergate Summers by Peter Eisenstadt

I was eighteen in 1972. My life, like that of most 18 year olds was a life of transitions. I was at college, though still living at home, slowly leaving Hashomer Hatzair, which had dominated my life for the previous half dozen years, because I was ambivalent about making Aliyah. (I should have gone, but that is another story.) And then, it happened as the famous phrase goes, “in the early morning hours of June 17th, ” five burglars were discovered inside Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. The next two years were the happiest political years of my life. I still think June 17th should be made a national holiday.

Watergate was to me proof of existence of some higher power, some deeper order in the universe. Every day there was another revelation, another piece of some cosmic political jigsaw puzzle, and slowly, inexorably they began to fit together, and when the picture was complete, it had only a single message; “Richard Nixon you can no longer be president of the United States.”

Watergate was a story of three summers. First was the summer of 1972, when it, mysteriously failed to become a major news story. There was, as Yul Brynner says in The King and I, a “puzzlement,” about the burglary, and I don’t think anyone believed it was just the five burglars who were involved, but Nixon did a good job in keeping the story about the supposed “third rate burglary” (a quintessential Watergate phrase) under wraps, and there was enough else going on—Vietnam, a presidential election, the disastrous campaign of George McGovern (great man, ineffective candidate) to distract most people. Anyway, I was reading the Times, not the Washington Post, so I didn’t get to read Woodward and Bernstein.

And then, in early 1973, the cover-up (another quintessential Watergate word) began to fall apart; we learned about G. Gordon Liddy; Nixon had to fire Ehrlichman and Haldeman; the hearings began, everyone fell in love with Sam Ervin, the canny, folksy, through strongly anti-civil rights lawyer/senator from North Carolina who put Nixon’s cronies through their paces, back in the days when there were Democrats in office in the South. Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee starting asking every witness “what did the president know and when did he know it?” (yet another quintessential Watergate phrase.) And then in the summer, Alexander P. Butterfield revealed the existence of a taping system, and all hell broke loose, leading to the firing of the independent prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in the infamous and much talked about as of late Saturday Night Massacre.

And then it was the summer of 1974. I had graduated college, still looking direction in my life. The Watergate process was moving in the only direction it could. The House Judiciary Committee was investigating articles of impeachment, more tapes were released, one with an “18 and a half minute gap” (another one of those quintessential Watergate phrase.) Pressure mounted; articles of impeachment were approved in committee. Barry Goldwater went to the White House, telling Nixon that congressional Republicans, after two years of resisting the obvious, could no longer support him. On August 8, Nixon announced he was going to address the nation. I had tickets to a Mostly Mozart concert at Avery Fisher Hall, with the incomparable Alicia De Larrocha giving a piano recital. They announced that because of the great interest, “Madame De Larrocha had consented to having Nixon’s speech played at intermission in the concert hall. When he announced that he would resign the next day, the applauding was so loud and the standing ovation so prolonged to make even an artist of the stature of Madame De Larrocha jealous. Next day, Nixon got on a plane, waved goodbye, and exited history.

And now it’s another scandal summer. I’m older but not sure I’m wiser. Still trying to figure out what to do with my life. I never thought I would hate and loathe a president as much as I did Richard Nixon but I was wrong. Watergate, I thought, was restorative, a proof that the system works. The Democrats crushed in the 1974 midterms, Jimmy Carter won in 1976, and I thought the aberration of Richard Nixon was gone forever. But I was wrong. Watergate proved to be a liberal interregnum in a country whose politics were rapidly shifting rightwards. I have no confidence anymore that “the system,” whatever that is, works. Our president has spent his life wriggling out of legal inconveniences and personal disasters with the artful use of cash and personal connections, like so many others of his class. He well might again.   The Republicans of today are a cowardly toadying bunch. If one of the messages of Watergate was that no one is above the law, the current president won the White House with the message that everyone is above the law, and that existing rules are just for fools and sissies. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t believe it will end in any sort of national reconciliation. I expect the current president will finish out his term, and that partisan rancor will only increase. But there will be enough time for my armchair punditry.

But it feels like Watergate, and I keep on having Watergate flashbacks.  Another day, another jaw dropping story. The steady drip of executive branch foulness. Republicans increasingly befuddled on what to say. And despite all the lies, the obfuscations, and the mendacities, the certainty that our president is up to this in his louche eyeballs. Just two more quintessential Watergate phrases. Perhaps the most quintessential Watergate phrase of all, though it’s not from the Watergate investigation itself, but from a movie. To understand the roots of the president’s Russian connections, one can only quote Hal Holbrooke/Mark Felt/ Deep Throat standing in a Washington DC parking garage at 2:00 am, whispering to Robert Redford, “follow the money.” And when the president of the United States has to say “I am not a crook,” he is a crook.