Different Way To Ponder Watergate Break-In 50 Years Ago Today

Though I am busy with the final stages of finishing my second book there was no way to not post about an event in history that not only energized my interest in Richard Nixon, but also one that profoundly changed the nation.

Fifty years ago tonight the Watergate break-in occurred. Five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, but what was to be uncovered in the following two years turned out to be a cast of characters best described as “white-collar criminals, hatchet men, and rogues” as Garrett Graff wrote in a Watergate: A New History.

The illegal, devious, and at times, truly absurd and comical activities would ultimately lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Though Nixon was well-read, educated, and to be praised for grand chess moves on the international stage, such as with the opening to China, his glaring character flaws defined his presidency. His actions and those he either condoned by others or by his conveyance of an attitude that stepping over legal boundaries was allowed proved his major ethical failing.

In 2017, more revelations were reported to underscore why a lenient tone and mindset from the Oval Office about illegal political activities gave license to others to act recklessly. It was stunning to learn Watergate prosecutors had evidence that operatives for Nixon planned an assault on anti-war demonstrators in 1972, including potentially physically attacking Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

Anniversaries, such as the one we observe today, almost force one to reflect on the past. American politics would be vastly different had Nixon not used dirty tricks on his political opponents, or used the power of his office to attempt to thwart an investigation into wrong-doing.

But one can go a step further, as I have long argued, that had there been no stolen election in Texas that placed Lyndon Baines Johnson in the U.S. Senate the war in Southeast Asia would have played out differently. The anti-war movement and resulting violence and social upheaval might not have occurred, removing a theme Nixon used most successfully to win the 1968 balloting.

Longtime readers know of my deep respect for author and historian Robert Caro. His book Means Of Ascent about the 1948 special Texas senatorial election where LBJ’s win by 87 votes–votes that were manufactured by his backers and created from a phone book–makes the later newsreel footage of “Landslide Johnson” as it relates to Vietnam all the more biting and troubling.  

The story of Box 13 from Alice, Texas is not new by any means,   But the fully detailed and piece-by-piece unwinding of the drama over a large segment in Volume Two of Caro’s work on LBJ is not only masterly crafted but also a gut-punch even to those who know the background prior to opening the pages.  Caro submits an exhaustive amount of research in a polished manner where it seems that only intricate details are the ones fit to print.  In other words, he respects the readers he writes for, and that is most uplifting.

I had never before read the testimonies given in court by the individuals who conspired with LBJ to steal the election.  It was riveting.  The Johnson family is not fond of Caro and that is due to the writer, in grand detail providing historical evidence that coercion, lost ballot boxes, and corruption were practiced as high art by Johnson. Also, it needs noting for many decades by many Texan pols.

But the point here is that had Johnson not ‘won’ in 1948 he would not have been a national figure at the time of the Vietnam War.

In fact, had there been the lack of national angst that rose to levels of bombings and university strife and mayhem on the streets, due in large part to the Vietnam War, Nixon would not have had a natural opening to revive his political career. His loss in 1960, coupled with a spiritless race for governor in California had already removed him from national prospects for office.

The nation’s faith in elected officials, political institutions, and our standing on the world stage was tremendously impacted both by Vietnam and Watergate.

Those types of thoughts swirled around many years ago when James and I left the Jefferson Memorial and took a taxi to the Watergate. I thought perhaps there would be a coffee shop where we could catch a late lunch. Once we made the large arc of a driveway to the Watergate and were greeted by a uniformed man opening the car door I knew this was going to be even grander than I had first thought.    We asked about some food options and were seated outdoors. As you might expect, it was easy to get caught up in the history of the place.

To sit there and just take in the surroundings, while pondering the enormity of the break-in that would lead to the constitutional crisis that would envelop this nation was truly sobering.  Later that evening I would pass the courthouse where Judge John Sirica would make his rulings.

There were only a few items on the lunch menu and since visiting Washington requires carbs and calories for the constant adrenaline rushes I settled on bagels with cream cheese, lox, and capers.  It came with a side dish of fresh fruit–blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries.  And of course, coffee.

During lunch, I thought of former Wisconsin State Representative Lary Swoboda, an avid reader of books about Nixon who had many recollections about the events and mood of the nation during those tumultuous years.  He had died without making it to the famed building, so in some sense, Lary did make it to the Watergate–at least in memories.

Telling the friendly waiter at the end of lunch how pleased I was to have had the experience and made my interest in Nixon known, she put both hands over her head–the peace sign made with fingers in each hand–and said “I am not a crook.”

It was perfect!

Slow-Down In Blogging At Caffeinated Politics Until Publishing Project Completed

Starting May 3rd, and expected to continue for no more than three months, Caffeinated Politics will seem to have fewer opinions and musings on a daily basis. Most weeks there have been five or six articles, some of which were linked by local media sites in Madison or Milwaukee.

But starting tomorrow, I will post no more than once or twice a week as my attention will be focused on a book project aimed to be published this summer. It will be my second book.

Over the winter, and into the start of spring, I have juggled a writing project with everything else I feel committed to doing, which was not so bad as winter held sway outside. But with spring trying to land in Madison, and knowing at some point soon it truly will, means I really need to stay focused and make progress with the project.

As such, I will slow down on posting for a few months. I am excited about the future and love the project that is engaging my time.

And so it goes.

How To Excite Students About History

Some years ago, I tutored a high school student in history for one semester. We were starting with the Articles of Confederation and the War for Independence on this side of the pond. He truly was not interested in ‘those dead men’ and looking at his textbook I could not argue that the writing was tortured and not aimed to excite a young mind.

Enter my favorite Founding Father.

I brought some copied pages from a book that told the story of the morning Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr met for a duel that killed one and ravaged the reputation of another. I added the slice of trivia about how Dolly Madison and Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Hamilton, waved from carriages at the celebration when the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was put in place.

Bit by bit over the weeks I supplemented the staid textbook with the richer and more colorful aspects of the lives of the ones he was to learn about for classroom discussion. While I am sure the student did not become a history major, I know he passed that class.

Using outside sources to aid in teaching history would seem to be essential for teachers, as I can not imagine the school textbooks have improved to the point where they are engaging for students. Recently that thought came to mind when reading Russian history. (If you think teaching American history is tough—ponder Russian history from the early 1700s!)

Over the decades the caliber of historical writing has grown along with easier ways to research the past. Using the outcomes of such advancements in the classroom (even with the restriction on copyrights) can go a long way in creating the context for students to ‘see the past’, and better understand why it matters.

From The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law: Laura Ingraham Sounds Like Frank Shakespeare From 1968 Nixon Campaign

It continually amuses me, on the one hand, how Republicans champion free enterprise, applauds the entrepreneurial spirit, and advocate for fewer regulations on capitalism, but then on the other hand bore down like bullies when a company exerts its opinions.

The latest example of this odd duality can be seen and heard on FOX News regarding Disney and the culture war designed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to propel his name among the base of the Republican Party.

The issue, is, of course, the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Taking effect July 1, the law prohibits all classroom discussion of sexual orientation in grades K-3 and enables parents to sue teachers over the issue.

Talk about a slap to the gay and transgender population in Flordia in the 21st century.

In response, Robert Iger, the former CEO of Disney, spoke out on the issue and made it most clear that this is simply about “right and wrong.” Earlier he had not minced words when writing that this law would “put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy.”

Fox News, it will not surprise anyone, has claimed Disney is ‘grooming’ and ‘sexualizing children’ in order to push a ‘progressive LGBT agenda.’

Recall many years ago the joke that one received a toaster oven for each new gay recruit! I believe that humor started on the Ellen television show. As such, I can see the semi loads of those kitchen gadgets arriving in the theme park as I write.

The fuming from conservatives, however, reached the lowest depths on that network when there came a warning from Laura Ingraham, the easily irritated scold.

“When Republicans get back into power, Apple and Disney have to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table, your copyright/trademark protection, your special status in certain states, and even your corporate structure itself.”

Well, that sure is a grand definition of the Republican Party heading into the mid-terms. A band of vendetta-crazed legislators who really are not interested in the freedom for businesses to conduct their own affairs, or lower regulations upon them.

‘Do my bidding or else’!

This leads me to the dark example from the 1968 presidential election when Frank Shakespeare, a prime mover and shaper of the image of Richard Nixon, who after 18 years at CBS, had most troubling thoughts, too. From The $elling Of The President by Joe McGinniss, page 60.

McGinniss at the time was a 26-year-old former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who functioned as part of the Nixon campaign team. What he witnessed in that campaign and the strategy for winning national support was illuminating at the time his book was published.

How Nixon was so able to attract people into his orbit with open desires for abusing power is a topic for another post.

For now, the continuing attempt by the right to make gay people dangerous or somehow apart from morality is stunning, given the number of gay people in conservative families. In 2021 it would be laughable, if it were not so appalling, to know that Desantis and Fox think that children are somehow ‘groomed’ into sexual identity. That is patently absurd.

I know it takes time for everyone in society to operate from the same page. From women wearing pants, no restrictions on where to sit on a bus, or what gender one can marry, one thing is abundantly clear.

Arcing towards greater tolerance is the correct path to be taking.

Disney is correct on that score.

And so it goes.

Good History Reads For Your Springtime

I find myself in a really pleasant place with the current history books I am enjoying, and as often the case on Caffeinated Politics, wish to call them out for my readers. As usual, I have a number of books ‘underway’ at the same time, making it easy to pick up a chapter or two based on the mood of the day.

If you are looking for a book that is ‘timely’ and just well-constructed, then The Romanovs would be a grand idea. With the past few months of Russian military build-up and aggression, I have turned more attention to Russian history. (Russia has long been a region I love to read about.) An online friend gave me this book idea, and it is a very compelling read. As I write today Peter the Great has sent his half-sister, Sofia, far way—oh, to have such power (LOL). Simon Sebag Montefiore’s writing is excelled only by his research. Masterfully done on all counts! The narrative is tight yet expansive with tidbits and pacing of the kind I find to be superb. However, if you are squeamish about being thrown out a castle window onto a pike……

Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power was high up on my shelves for a number of years, just waiting to come down. Jon Meacham is a wonderful historian and writer, and while the Founders are a great interest of mine there always seemed to be another book that made for the ‘top of the pile’. The latest unnecessary dust-up over the naming of a Madison school was what brought out my footstool to reach up and start the book. I am to Part Five, 1785, and his journey to Europe as a diplomat. What attracts me now, as always to Jefferson and the whole of the Founders, is the ability to have ideals and yet know that pragmatic reasoning must be undertaken to achieve forward progress. History always bends towards modernity, then as now. Just never at the pace, we desire.

Prisoners of Geography is a short, and snappy around the world read with some background, that while not necessarily new information, is compacted and presented in such a way as to connect the ten maps that Tim Marshall presents.

For the meat of international relations, however, I head to the master. I find Henry Kissinger essential to understanding our world. Some revile him, and I understand that. But for pure realism about not only how the world is constructed with complex relationships but why that is so, there is no one better to explain it. Or pose the questions we need to ponder moving forward. One reviewer for World Order stated the book should be read by every new member of Congress. Presently am at The Multiplicity Of Asia, after Kissinger expounded on the irrationality that is present-day Iran.

Whatever book(s) you pick up to read…the main thing is to read books. I am troubled with too much of our world reading nothing more than what can be typed for a Twitter posting. The knowledge we need, the questions we should wish to be posed and answered, demand books in our lives.

Happy reading.

And so it goes.

James Baker, Lester Hunt, Allen Drury, And The Gay Plot Of “Advise And Consent”

To say the lightning crashed directly outside our home Tuesday night would be akin to saying the coffee poured directly into my mug this morning. Needless to say, I was most certainly awake after our first thunderstorm of the spring season. So after making scrambled eggs at 3 AM I went back to bed, pulled a book from the bedside pile, and read a chapter.

James Baker: The Man Who Ran Washington by the husband and wife powerhouse reporting team Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, received critical praise for the joint effort at bringing one of the consequential men of the later decades of the 20th century into better focus. The book landed on my pile as it is designed to show how power is attained in Washington, and once accomplished, how it is used. That same intriguing theme runs through Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson volumes, which I adore.

At the close of the first chapter, In The Magnolia City, a line I had not intended to find in a contemporary book popped off the page. James Baker and his dad were going on a hunting trip for big game. A paragraph listed the others in the hunting party.

…..and the governor of Wyoming, Lester Hunt, who later became the inspiration for one of the main characters in Allen Drury’s classic Advise and Consent.

I have read and admired Allen Drury since The Throne of Saturn in my middle school years, and in high school when I first read his famed Pulitzer prize-winning book. In time, I would read the whole series. I have them all placed in a special location on my bookshelves above my desk where I write this post.

Since I was not at all certain which of the characters in the book Hunt was to have helped create I did a fast google search on my iPad and found out a nugget not before known.

The legendary book by Drury is built around a bitter Senate confirmation battle that takes a wild turn off the pages, that in high school, I could not have predicted. A widely respected young senator is blackmailed over a homosexual affair in his past, prompting him to commit suicide in his Senate office. In later years, I would learn how this book interacted with our real-life politics and the way gay men and women dealt with being gay on the political stage. The book truly had an impact on our society.

Drury wrote the book in 1960 and used the suicide of Democratic Senator Lester Hunt, who shot himself in his Senate office on June 19, 1954, as the focal point.

Hunt wasn’t gay. But his son, Lester “Buddy” Hunt Jr., had been arrested the year before for soliciting gay sex in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.

As Paul Harvey, another favorite at this blogger’s desk would say, “now you know the rest of the story”.

Lester “Buddy” Hunt, jr., looks directly at the camera in this undated photo of Hunt family and friends at the governor’s mansion in Cheyenne; Gov. Hunt at far right. Courtesy Buddy Hunt.

The lesson to be taken from this post, however, if when awakened in the night by a loud storm do not get up to eat, and for Pete’s sake do not pick up an interesting book and start reading…..!

And so it goes.

Six Years Later–Epic Ken Follett Book Series Completed–Well, Sort Of

This weekend a fabulous reading marathon was completed–after six years.

Well, not so fast, bunky! Hold on, as there is one more volume to read.

Six years ago when James and I traveled to Galena, Illinois I packed Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth into our suitcase. I recall that minivacation because the day we came back to Madison I was reading inside as the rain fell, and the thunder crashed. In time, we would know that a short distance away a tornado had hit on East Washington Avenue. ( I have an odd habit of placing books I love with the events occurring while reading them.)

The Kingsbridge Novels are tomes and given there were three of them (at the time) I spaced them out among my books of interest over the years. I finished the first volume about a twelfth-century project of building a mighty Gothic cathedral. However, I was so intrigued by the topic of Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1558 and the power struggles between Catholics and Protestants, I next read the third volume, A Column Of Fire.

It should be noted these books can be read out of order. I am rather opposed–generally speaking–to skipping about with a series but in this case, it does not alter the story or take away from the joy within the pages. I guess my OCD does have flexibility!

This weekend World Without End was concluded. Starting in 1327 the book takes us into the heart of the plague and the means of taxation and deprivation of the ones tied to the land by cruel earls and landholders.

To say the books are epics would be akin to saying the Grand Canyon is deep. The weaving of characters and plots over a thousand pages with a tight narrative is not something to be started by faint-hearted writers. But Follett does it seemingly effortlessly–which is a sign of how professional he is as an author.

As I closed the cover of the paperback and took to my blog to praise the series I am truly surprised to learn that my reading journey is not quite over with Kingsbridge!

It is 997 CE, the end of the Dark Ages. England is facing attacks from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Those in power bend justice according to their will, regardless of ordinary people, and often in conflict with the king. Without a clear rule of law, chaos reigns.

As Amazon alerts us….”Thirty years ago, Ken Follett published his most popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth. Now, Follett’s masterful new prequel The Evening and the Morning takes us on an epic journey into a historical past rich with ambition and rivalry, death and birth, love and hate, that will end where The Pillars of the Earth begins.”

(I ordered the book before this post was finished.)

For lovers of books and fans of favorite authors, it is needless to say there is indeed a wonderful satisfaction to have another 800 pages waiting for that special time–perhaps a year or two away–to settle in for a journey sure to be loved.

Oh, yes, thank you Ken Follett!

And so it goes.

Happy Johnny Appleseed Day, With “American Canopy”

At the start of each day, I scan through a series of headlines from a variety of news sources which I have arrive in my email box. Among the news from Washington and London comes my daily snippet from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (A tradition from my childhood—the Almanac, not the email!)

Today I am reminded it is Johnny Appleseed Day, honoring John Chapman, a native of Leominster, Mass., who introduced apple trees to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Ontario. Though the actual story of this man was as much about religion as apple seeds.

Many years ago I was given the book American Canopy, which looks at the history of our nation from the vantage point of trees. As a lover of history, this fresh concept of history written with such feeling and devotion by Eric Rutkow fully grabbed my attention. I not only thoroughly enjoyed the book but have bought it for a number of friends for gifts at holidays or when they needed a pick-me-up.

The portion of the book concerning the man of the day offers an aspect to Chapman I had not known before. His deep faith in a fringe aspect of Christianity is truly interesting. So I pulled my book off the shelves today and snapped a few pics of paragraphs that I trust intrigue my readers.

Amid all the headlines of pain and suffering from Eastern Europe might this be a bit of tonic for the soul. Living life in a good way will be long recalled.

And so it goes.