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46 Years Ago Tonight…In Hancock And The White House…

August 8, 2020

…our family only had television for about one year by the time President Richard Nixon resigned from his office in a stunning address to the nation.

Home July 2000

As a twelve-year-old growing up in Hancock, Wisconsin this news seemed most interesting for the simple reason that nothing exciting ever seemed to occur in my hometown area.  Everything exciting happened ‘out there’ and that meant far way.  All of a sudden the energy of a national story was hitting home as people around me were talking about it and we seemed in that fashion to be a part of the story, too.  I liked that feeling and was starting to understand the adrenaline rush that came with breaking news stories.

Counting the bean-pickers that rumbled down our country road or predicting how much rain might be in the gauge dad had set up on the white fence separating Mom’s flowers from the leafy rhubarb patch were what constituted a normal type summer day in my childhood.  So it is not hard to fathom how exciting following the news over a president leaving office might be for a kid.

Even though I was not aware of the depth and complexity of Watergate, thanks to the daily paper that was delivered six days a week in our mail and from radio newscasts, I knew there was excitement brewing in the land.

My parents spent the early part of the evening of August 8th after our dinner—supper as my Mom always referred to it—doing some lawn work.  There were gray clouds that evening, though not the type that made for any rain.  That surely was greeted with a smile by Dad as he mowed in cooler temperatures.  Mom followed him around the trees and flower patches with trimming shears in hand tidying up the spots the mower was not able to perfect.    I know dad was being cognizant of the time and wanting things to be done in time for the national presidential address.

By the time Nixon looked directly into the camera the three of us were seated in the living room, with dad in his leather-like chair that tipped back ever so slightly while Mom and I sat on the sofa, with me perched closet to the TV, a spot I always seemed to gravitate towards.

How my parents felt about that night is not registered in my mind.   I suspect that is due to the fact they watched the address like most other Americans who knew larger legal and political forces were at work in the nation and all they could do was just watch it unfold.    In later years I knew my parents were part of that “Silent Majority” that Nixon was speaking to in his national races.  They worked hard, played by the rules, and at times could do nothing more than just watch as events swirled around them.  I have no memory of any emotional reaction—one way or the other—from the Republican home where I grew up that night, though I still recall where we were and what we did.

As was the case with other events that played out on the national stage in those years of my life it was the drama and excitement that drew me to the story.  I knew that the resignation was a major event, but am not sure I placed it in historical terms.  What I very much recall that night and then in the days that followed were the urgent tones in the announcer’s voices and the paced delivery of whatever was being reported.    Where others my age were the product of the TV age I had grown up with radio and experienced a whole other way of hearing the news.    I may have wished for more excitement in my youth but would not trade those AM broadcasts for any black-and-white image from a TV.

The following morning was one that left lasting impressions on me.

Dad was at work and Mom was undertaking the regular household type patterns of life that made our house a home.  August 9th was sunny and bright as I sat in the living room in front of the television with the sun streaming in through the windows on the south side of the house.  What happened has lingered with me over the decades.

First, and though I was not able to recognize it at the time, came the raw and unvarnished words and open emotions from a politician.  Rarely has anyone with power and a national moment spoke in the way President Nixon did as he stood behind a podium and bid White House staff and administrative aides farewell.  It was unscripted and though I had no reason to know why at the time his words hit me and have never left me since.

Some would say in later years they wondered how Nixon made it through his roughly fifteen minutes of saying goodbye.  It was wrenching to watch and never fails to move me when I view it these decades later.

In one of his awkwardly emotional moments for a man who never relied on such sentiment to carry him through the political battles he stated, “Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother.  Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother–my mother was a saint.”  I think his time behind the podium that morning was as close as we ever came to see the human side of the man.

The second reason the events struck me that morning and continue to hold my attention, concerned the way power was handed over under the rules that our nation agrees to be governed by, even in the worst of times.  This is not some small outcome when a constitutional crisis was finalized with the wave from a fallen leader as he gets on a helicopter and his vice-president takes over as the next leader of the free world.  A twelve-year-old out in the country where nothing ever happens could even see the wonder of it all.

Decades following that morning when Nixon made his emotional comments from the White House I wrote Walking Up The Ramp, a book about my life, and parents who raised a boy to be a determined man.  The quote I used to open my story was the same one that caught my attention back in the sunny living room of my childhood.  No one may have ever written a book about Dick Nixon’s Mom, but I would write one about mine.

There are many who can not find anything other than revulsion for Richard Nixon.  I just am not one of those.

As readers might know I have had a life-long interest in the life and times of Richard Nixon.   While I have long stated President Abraham Lincoln was our most important leader to occupy the White House I have long felt Nixon was our most intriguing.  Nixon’s life was a Shakespeare play acted out for the whole nation to watch.

No one can or should want to spin away from the Watergate affairs which covers everything from a bungled burglary to the plumbers, ITT, the firing of a special prosecutor and so much more.  Frankly, it is hard to imagine all that happened actually playing out day after day, week after week, month after month.  Yet it all happened and many of us have memories of those days, as anguishing as they were.

Over the years I have come to a more nuanced perspective about the man.  I do not allow for any wiggle room on his crimes or need to resign from the office.  But when it comes to his international involvement I leave the bitterness for the partisans while taking stock of the accomplishments in places around the globe.

At this time as we reflect on the resignation, we need to ask ourselves if our politics really did survive that event or was it instead a demarcation line where faith was lost in our political institutions that have never again been mended.   Between the Vietnam War and Watergate, the nation lost more of itself than most knew at the time.

And so it goes.

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