"What Watergate Means To Me"
by Tony Olson
Sept. 5, 1975
"Our long national nightmare is over," said Gerald Ford when he assumed the
presidency from Richard Nixon. All the reporters and television commentators seemed
to agree with him, judging by the number of times they repeated the words "national
nightmare." Me, I'm not convinced. Maybe Ford should have said, "Our national horror
picture is over." And maybe David Brinkley should have cocked his head and quipped,
"President Ford may have meant the Watergate scandal, but one could be pardoned
for thinking he was referring to the entire Nixon presidency," (the line delivered with
Brinkley's familiar cracker barrel rhythm).
If Nixon can be pardoned for wiping himself with the Constitution, then please pardon
me for thinking Watergate was great entertainment. I was vacationing with my family
in the Pacific Northwest when the Ervin Committee came on the tube, and neither
miles of ocean nor bra-less college girls could tear me away from the hearings on TV
for very long. Nixon's henchmen seemed to combine the character traits of all the shifty
salesmen and eerie executives I've ever met at wedding receptions and cocktail
parties: on top of the world one day, squirming in the hot seat the next. It left
Hollywood in the dust, that's for sure. Sam Ervin was Jimmy Stewart grown bulbous
with indignation. John Dean was Don Knotts turned zombie stool pigeon. God, it was
Does this sound cynical? Well, look at it from a generational perspective. My parents
and their generation grew up with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight
Eisenhower and John Kennedy: presidents who provided bold leadership (except for
Eisenhower, who apparently spent most of his time golfing and reading Westerns) and
didn't routinely lie to the public. My generation grew up with Lyndon Johnson, a
strange, long-suffering man who walked into the Vietnam disaster like he was starring
in a Texas version of "Hamlet," and Richard Nixon, a seriously weird human being.
After spending my childhood in the sixties -- a carnival ride between assassinations
and featuring acid, orgies and loud guitars -- maybe you'll forgive me for expecting
bizarre drama every time I turn on the news. As Watergate turned into an incredible
maze of corruption and crime, my parents were shocked. I was just fascinated. Nixon
had secretly bombed, then invaded, Cambodia, a neutral country. He won the election
after his Good German told everybody peace was at hand, then celebrated Christmas
by bombing Hanoi. For him, obstructing justice and talking into Oval Office tape
recorders about "cold-cocking the bastards" was all in a day's work. Presidents, after
all, were men who did terrible things and told enormous lies on television to cover up
their rear ends.
It's taken over a year of Gerald Ford bonking his head and boring the pants off
everyone for me to realize that presidents can also be regular guys. We're being
taught that Watergate proves that the system works, apparently because Congress
didn't have to surround the White House with US Marines and force Nixon to leave at
gun point. But I'm not so sure. In fact, I feel cheated. The Constitution Ford swore to
uphold and defend specifically states that pardons do not apply to impeachable
offenses. But they let him get away with it.
There was a lot of talk about how the nation was spared the awful trauma of Nixon's
trial before the Senate. The nation was also spared the logical climax of the greatest
Constitutional drama since the Civil War, and future presidents were spared the full
impact of the lesson. Watergate should have been a banshee howling down the next
fifty or one hundred years to leaders facing criminal temptation: "DON'T EVEN THINK
ABOUT IT!." Ford's pardon muffled that cry. Now, Nixon is nursing his leg out at San
Clemente while his lawyers battle for control of the White House tapes. Only a small
part of them were released to the public. I wonder if we'll ever know everything he did.
- from Dazed and Confused (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1993).
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