Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kicking Nixon Around Some More

Here we are, the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.  Woodward and Bernstein have returned to the subject in this piece for The Washington Post where they argue that Nixon was even worse than we thought, and they discuss all the various wars that Nixon launched on various aspects of society.  They quote Nixon:  “'Always remember,' he said, 'others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.'”  Woodward and Bernstein conclude, "His hatred had brought about his downfall. Nixon apparently grasped this insight, but it was too late. He had already destroyed himself."

In many ways, I found Marc Fisher's story in The Washington Post more compelling.  He wrestles with the question of whether or not Watergate destroyed our trust in the government or proved that the system of checks and balances actually works.  He talks about how the meaning of the scandal has morphed over time.  He includes fascinating discussion about how it's taught in schools:  “'On a practical level, Watergate has really receded as a topic that people teach,' says Steve Armstrong, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies and supervisor of social studies for the West Hartford, Conn., school system. 'I’m 59, so Watergate is huge to me, but anything that old is ancient history for young people. For many young teachers, Watergate is just one event among many of this nature.'”

It's interesting to think about how more modern scandals have revolved around sexual misconduct, but Watergate involved crimes that seem more menacing, even from a 40 year distance.  And here's the question that really resonates for me:  "Why did the president and his staff, coasting toward easy reelection, commence a campaign of dirty tricks?" (from the Fisher story).

Woodward and Bernstein would answer that Nixon always behaved this way:  "Long before the Watergate break-in, gumshoeing, burglary, wiretapping and political sabotage had become a way of life in the Nixon White House."  But here's the question for which I can find no easy answer:  did Nixon begin life as a bitter, paranoid person who tried to destroy his enemies--and he thought of almost everyone as an enemy--or did his life's circumstances transform him into this Watergate man?

I often say that Watergate is my first political memory, not the break-in, but the events of the summer of 1974, when Nixon resigned.  I am surrounded by people who believe in conspiracies of all kinds, but the Watergate events formed my consciousness early and made me convinced that it's hard to maintain a cover-up.  I tend not to believe in conspiracies because I don't have that high a view of human nature.

There's a woman at work who really believes that George Bush and a few people from his inner circle were directly responsible for the events of September 11.  The actions that would have had to happen for this to be true boggle my mind.  The administration didn't show that level of competence, skill, and precision anywhere else--do we really believe it's possible in the Sept. 11 arena?

And even if we do believe it's possible, do we really believe that those actions could be kept hidden for very long?  Some people do.  I do not.

But I digress.  Back to my more compelling question:  was Nixon always this way?

It's a variation of a question that has always haunted me:  can a person with integrity work for a corrupt institution and retain one's integrity?  Does it depend on the level of the corruption, the strength of the moral core of the person?  Or the flip side of the question:  can a corrupt person or two ruin the integrity of an upright institution?

But here's what I really want to know:  can I retain my sunny, optimistic nature if I'm surrounded by gloomy people?  Will I change them or will they change me? 

I also find myself haunted by the idea that Nixon, as awful as he was in some arenas, was also groundbreakingly trailblazing in others.  Nixon, the man who went to Communist China.  Nixon, the man who brought us the Environmental Protection Agency.  Nixon, who perhaps most changed my life by his Title IX actions, which was about far more than sports:  "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity."

How did that man coexist in the body of the man we hear in the White House tapes spewing hatred of all kinds?

These are not the questions that most people ponder when they think about Watergate. I know that most people don't think about Watergate at all anymore.

It's startling to me to think about how old the Watergate generation is getting to be.  As they die off, will we ponder these anniversaries at all?  As we move to 40th anniversaries of other scandals, I suspect only a few of us will.

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