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!

What To Say (And Not!) After An Election Night Loss

I have over time mentioned the words and tones used by a candidate when conceding an election. There are classy ways to handle what is, without doubt, a tough moment and then there are dreadful ways to make the statement to the winner. The statement that was submitted by Brandi Grayson, the CEO of Urban Triage, following her opponent taking 65% of the vote this week was the most stunning election night comment I have ever become aware of over the decades of following politics.

I deeply respect the handshakes and quick banter that two professional tennis players allow each other following a mentally and physically punishing game.  It is an honorable way to conclude the contest regardless of the outcome.  When it comes to the end of a political campaign I also desire to see the best of one’s character shine.

Madison Isthmus reported the following about Brandi Grayson who was seeking a seat on the city council.

Grayson had some missteps that may have cost her. She sought, received and then shunned an endorsement from Progressive Dane. The political party shares many of her policy positions, including the need to invest more in city services other than the police department. But in January she called the political party “dangerous.” Grayson also strayed far from local issues, drawing criticism from Indigenous people for calling them “red” and claiming that Black people were “the original inhabitants of the land known as America.” 

After the results came in, Grayson said her southside district “voted for anti BLACKNESS.” 

“It wasn’t just [white] people, it was Black people. Lots of Black people. Elders. Church folks. Conservatives. Moderates. And others who just didn’t vote,” Grayson wrote on Facebook on election night. “It was CONFIRMATION that Madison will kill me and allow the mayor and the same alders to show up to give condolences.” 

That reminded me of an embittered Richard Nixon who lost his 1962 California gubernatorial bid and then lashed out at the media. His famous line still echoes with “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Over the years I have been able to see in real-time how a concession is handled, while more often reading or watching such a happening through the media.  But in each case, a concession following a hard-fought campaign shows the mettle of a person perhaps better than any other facet of seeking office.

I found it troubling a few years ago when Wisconsin State Assemblyman Adam Jarchow was reported to have tweeted his concession to the victorious Patty Schachtner following the special state senate election. I grasp the fact that everything these days is seemingly done on the gadgets people carry around like aged smokers do with their oxygen tanks.  But when it comes to concessions there is a need to be personal and more connected.  Surely the phone number for the opposing campaign was available.  Call me old-fashioned but just pick up the phone and place the call!

The morning following the 1988 election victory of State Representative Lary Swboda the phone rang in his Kewaunee County home.  I had worked in the district often that fall on the campaign and as I stood in the kitchen as Lary answered the call I was privy to one of the gracious acts of politics.  Bob Papke, then Door County Clerk, had run, up to that time, the most expensive race for the state assembly.  He had been condescending and rather mean-spirited during the months leading to Election Day.  But on the phone, as Papke spoke to Lary there was a gentlemanly quality to the conversation and though the two would never be friends, an air of good sportsmanship was most apparent.

I have no partisan stake regarding concessions as shown when a woman I deeply respect failed at the art of being professional and gracious on election night. That person was a Democratic candidate–and one I had supported–Kathleen Falk.  

I was very disappointed to have read that she did not show up on Election Night to greet campaign workers and countless Democrats who worked so very hard for her over the past many months.  On Election Night she did not need to concede, (given the closeness of the race) but did need to say thanks.  To stay at her home and watch the returns come in was not what many expected.

It is Saturday afternoon as I write this post, and I am unhappy that Kathleen has not conceded the race for Attorney General.  Being defeated in an election after a well-fought effort should not be an embarrassment.  But not being a better sport in the arena of politics is much worse than coming in second place.

The gracious nature of Vice-President Al Gore following the grueling legal wars of a recount in 2000 demonstrates the reasons character matters when it comes to our elections.  The same rules of the road apply in local elections, too.  Being graceful with concessions makes for a strong mark of character.

And so it goes.

Why Tapes Matter: 50 Years Ago Today–February 16, 1971–Nixon Taping System Began Operating

Many moments in history get recognized at Caffeinated Politics, so I would be negligent if there was not a post about the event which started today, February 16, 1971. As a result of President Richard Nixon starting to use a White House taping system 50 years ago there is a treasure trove of roughly 3,700 hours of his conversations as president. There are roughly 3,000 hours of those tapes available to be listened to, while the rest contain either national security information or family conversations and as such are off-limits.

These tapes matter, as do the other White House taped recordings from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. The tapes are a great insight into the workings of the Oval Office, the leader of the free world, the creation of policy, and the art of politics.

In the case of the Nixon tapes, and in relation to the Watergate fiasco, we still do not know who ordered the June 1972 Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s resignation. But we do know without any doubt whatsoever, due to the recordings, that Nixon ordered the break-in at the Brookings Institution in 1971. While the Brookings break-in never happened what can be understood from the tapes is the culture of lawlessness that started at the very top of that White House.

My fascination with Nixon has been a lifetime undertaking and the tapes are, without doubt, a historical mine that can be explored for new nuggets and perspectives that create an evolving understanding of our past. But long before I knew Nixon had been taping his conversations I had become interested in the man.

At  the age of ten I sat in the backseat of our family car as we drove to a  nighttime hair appointment for my mother in Plainfield, Wisconsin. My father had the car radio on, its soft glow radiating from the front dashboard. It was election night 1972. Perhaps I was somehow primed for that night due to my rural upbringing, having grandparents for neighbors, by family choice not having  a television in our home, and my already loving books. Whatever had preceded that night perhaps made me more receptive to what I heard and sensed from the radio.

I still recall the authoritative voices of the news announcers and the crowd noise from election night gatherings. I recall Nixon’s name being said over and over. And I recall my father telling me that Nixon would be elected president.

Countless times over the decades of my life I have thought back to that night, and how Richard Nixon would come to mean a great deal to how my interests were formed. He lit a fire of interest within me to follow the news, read the paper (which I did each day  while lying on our family couch or on the dining room floor following school classes), better understand the rough and tumble of politics, and care more about foreign policy.

And then the White House tapes were reported to not only exist, but started to be released. First for the impeachment process and then in years–and even decades later–larger batches of recordings were made available to the public. First in locations where researchers could conduct their work, then with books where many recordings were transcribed, and finally on the internet for political and history junkies to have access.

For the past 30 years, I have been listening to various batches of recordings as they first appeared in the hour-long Saturday C-SPAN programs, then online at sites such as this one. Over the past year as the pandemic kept us home, I have taken to reading some more of the transcripts, starting with the first volume as edited by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nitcher. One of the benefits of reading a transcript is due to the, at times, difficulty of making out the words that can be muffled or distorted due to placement of the microphones or the lack of using a louder voice when talking. Without a doubt, however, the actual recordings are more informative as the inflections and tone are essential to measuring the conversation at hand.

So I was really pleased to wake up this morning to find a friend sent me this article by none other than Nichter, who pens it perfectly as to why these historical tapes matter.

As a result of the tapes, our democracy is stronger. Public officials are held to account. The field of investigative journalism grew exponentially after Watergate. We have more information about how our government runs than ever before. The scandals of the Nixon administration were as much a long-awaited check on executive power – the “Imperial Presidency,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it – as they were unique to the personalities within Nixon’s White House.

On this commemoration, which immediately follows Presidents Day, let’s remember our leaders. Fifty years after Nixon began making the most controversial subset of White House tapes and more than 80 years since FDR made the very first, these records — while part of popular lore — remain largely underutilized and misunderstood. From each one we can learn something. Rather than canceling them, we should embrace history for what it can teach us.

About 30 years ago I was involved with the primary election for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction, while working in the office of State Representative Lary Swoboda, who was seeking the position. One of the things we both enjoyed was the life and times of Richard Nixon, and the intrigue of Watergate.  I still recall after some of the long days while campaigning in the primary that Swoboda would start talking about Watergate.  He could be exhausted, and almost as a way of unwinding and relaxing he would ponder again how the missing section of the tape happened, or how things would have changed had the tapes been destroyed.  The conversations were really quite lively. Those tapes and the discussions which follow about their contents have long been a part of my life.

I was truly delighted to have lunch and coffee at the famed Watergate–while looking out towards the Potomac during a long vacation in D.C. James still makes me smile over the most expensive coffee that I will likely ever enjoy. During lunch I told James that Lary would have much loved the experience as he was also an avid reader of books about Nixon and had many recollections about the events and mood of the nation during those tumultuous years.  So in some sense Lary did make it to the Watergate–at least in our memories.

A friend of mine has labeled me a Nixonologist, knowing over four decades I have read and studied the man. I recall at one point saying it is without doubt that very few people have actually listened to more than an hour of the Nixon tapes. But if more started that journey with listening, they too, would be more fascinated about not only Nixon, the process of governing, but also our history as a country.

Therefore, I absolutely agree with Luke Nichter. The tapes can teach us so much.

The Other Lar(r)y Swoboda

Late Sunday night I needed something different to read, and I wanted it short as the mission was to get tired so I could sleep. Well…..it was short but also created some laugher along the way.

I was tucked in my window seat with an i-Pad which had a downloaded copy of John Grisham’s Witness To A Trial. The book was only 43 pages long so I reasoned by the time the last page was concluded I would be ready for my pillow.

Long-time readers know I worked with State Representative Lary (one R) Swoboda at the Wisconsin Statehouse. I have written about him numerous times on this blog and gently implied he was unique. So it was a jolt when in Chapter Four I encounter Grishman’s inexperienced defense lawyer named….Larry Swoboda.

The lawyer had not wanted the double-murder case but the judge ordered Swoboda, age 31 and from Panama City, to take it. ‘However, not long after he got it, he realized he was in over his head.”

Wow–this was getting more real as the pages turned.

And then the hunt was on to find out if there was any online information as to how this award-winning legal writer landed on that name for a character. There was nothing to be found which matched my request…but one of the notables with that last surname was a Wisconsin Legislator.

The book was good—short and satisfying. Sleep took longer, however, as a result of reading………

Storied Life Of Tommy Thompson Continues

This weekend, while reading news coverage of the announcement that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson will serve as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, I thought about the need for a massive book dealing with his life.  There are few Wisconsin personalities that match his dynamism or scope of service.  He is a Republican, through and through, but has that essential quality of honesty and fair-play that allows him to have true friends from the entire political spectrum.

Thompson is trusted, and in this time of deeply partisan rancor and tribalism of the worst kind, it is truly refreshing to learn of the bi-partisan regard which the regent’s announcement was greeted.  Add the fact he fully grasps why the UW System is essential and how education paves the path to success, and I am confident we will look back on the failed search for Ray Cross’s replacement as having produced a positive outcome.

Over the decades I have been fortunate to have witnessed the style and manner of many politicians.  Most were forgettable as being glib, arrogant, and not made of substantive political material.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the likes of Tommy Thompson and Bill Proxmire.  To watch a master at the art of politics is something which, for me, is how others might feel regarding a home run hit into the upper stands.  Thompson made a tremendous impression on me in 1987, one I have always talked about over the years.

An employee of the famed Door County eatery,  Al Johnson’s Restaurant (with goats on the roof!) fell ill with hepatitis contracted during a vacation.  The establishment closed down for an extended period of time, and when reopening called in none other than Thompson to create the needed favorable headlines.

A number of elected officials were standing in line along with local citizens galore, waiting for the Governor to arrive.  I had traveled with Representative Lary Swoboda, and alongside him was State Senator Alan Lasee.  When Thompson arrived and set foot on the ground his smile and outstretched hand never stopped.  He greeted people by first names, and if he did not know it he still bantered like they had been college buddies.  His one hand rested on a shoulder as he pumped a handshake and looked into a person’s eyes, as opposed to the too-often ‘political scan’ over the shoulder to see what else is happening.  He was truly present with the folks in that restaurant.  That morning has never been forgotten for what the art of politics can feel and look like.

The other memory I put into my journal at the time, was due to Thompson in attendance there were enough Green Bay news crews on hand to make one think Elvis was inside the restaurant having a waffle. (Or fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.)

I believe Thompson is a most-qualified person, and well-suited to lead the UW System at this time because he can strike the needed chords of unity.  Something so much in need now in our state.

A few months after Governor Thompson took his oath in 1987 he happened to swing by the office of Swoboda.  Geneva Rode and Ruth Schohl who had worked for decades in the Capitol were splitting a full-time position in the office of the assemblyman from the First District.  Thompson knew each of them and stopped by to trade a few pleasantries and shake hands. That small simple event alerted me that we all were working in the building for the folks of the state.  It has always stood out to me as memorable due to how it demonstrated that leadership and conviviality start at the top.

With that same energy and force of character, which Thompson still possesses, I am confident of the future of the UW.

As for the biography that needs to be written about the life and times of Thompson the only criteria is that it has to have the gravitas of what Robert Caro accomplished with Lyndon Johnson. There would be sub-chapters and insight into James Klauser, Tom Loftus,  David Prosser, and so many others.  From his early days in Elory to acting president of the UW System, Thompson is a Wisconsin story that needs to be told in depth.

Attendees to Madison School Board Meetings Need To Grow The Hell Up

Once again this week the antics of those who attended the Madison School Board meeting made news.  Top of the late-night news broadcast type headlines.   Once again, embarrassing to this city.

The Madison School Board conducted its business in a closed room Monday after chanting and protests drowned out conversation.

An impassioned group of parents, students and community activists expressed outrage and demanded change Monday during the board’s public comment period over an alleged altercation between a middle school employee and 11-year-old student.

A couple of hundred people filled the rows of the Doyle Administration Building’s auditorium the week after it became public that a Whitehorse Middle School staff person was removed from the school for allegedly pushing, punching and pulling the hair of an 11-year-old African-American girl.

When the public comment period ended, though, the board started its regular agenda items, which was met with call-and-response chants, making it difficult to hear what was being discussed.

I am not sure where these people were raised, but wherever that might have been it was not in a cultured environment where decorum and manners were stressed.  And yes, those things matter in society.  It was as if many in the crowd had just been released for the first time in the general public and had no idea what was expected of them.

That the school board needed to have a secondary location to do the work of the community is shameful.  That there are so many thoughtless members of society which makes such a plan necessary is a stain in our city.

I have had the opportunity on many occasions to cover news events for a radio station.  Many a contentious county board meeting, school board, or city council where emotional issues were on the agenda.  But never once did I witness the childlike and boorish behavior of the kind which made for headlines this week as result of the school board meeting.  If this is how some people act in public when they do not get their way let us pray we never have to learn how they act out in private when confronting facts they do not like.

While working with State Representative Lary Swoboda I attended several highly charged public meetings designed to hear feedback on property taxes.  Picture irate farmers from Southern Door County wearing overalls and boots that should have been left in the barn.  While passions were high no one ever cussed or started to talk before Swoboda called on them to offer comments.  While no one got what they wanted from the meeting there were no wild outbursts or untoward displays.

Readers should not conclude that I have always had an easy time at meetings.  When I was a focal point at one of them I made a choice how to proceed.  How to act.  It is a lesson that I wrote about in my book Walking Up The Ramp.  Acting with civility is not that hard.

Shortly after starting my job Lary wanted a press release to the local papers and media concerning the new addition to his office.   Being the person in the office charged with handling the media, and writing the releases I again found myself writing about myself as I had when working in radio.   The release was brief, and factual.

There was no way to have predicted that some women in Kewaunee County who found it their mission to overturn Roe v. Wade would turn on me, and force Lary to feel the heat.   They were quite concerned about the Letters to the Editor that I had penned relating to abortion while living in Door County, and serving as chairperson of the county party. I had staked out a clear pro-choice position.  These women were adamant that Lary replace me in the office with someone who championed placing their head in the sand.

Lary confided that we needed to stem the issue, and since I presented myself very well he thought a meeting in the district with those who were all in a lather would be a wise move. I advised Lary that he might want to alert the women to the fact he runs his office, and will make the decision as to who is employed. Nothing is more unseemly than having the tail wag the dog, but clearly a small group of constituents were attempting to do just that very thing.   Lary always liked it when he could look to be in charge, and giving him the construct of how to handle this matter while making him the leader was the perfect political starting point—both for me, but also for him.

On a Saturday morning at a local gathering spot in Kewaunee County we entered to find a gaggle of women upon whom I had never set my eyes looking sternly in my direction.   I felt they were waiting for my head to spin and for some scene reminiscent of The Exorcist to play out. Instead I walked over to each of them, introduced myself and shook their hand. I offered pleasantries to each of them. Disarming political opponents in ways they cannot refuse is always the best choice.

In the conversation that followed they brought up my letters and views. I reminded them that it was very accurate to say I agreed with the 1973 Supreme Court decision, but that it was also true Lary cast the votes on the Assembly floor, should any issue regarding abortion require legislative action.

Meetings scheduled and attended by adults, be they for the school board or for a political purpose, should be handled in mature and reasonable ways.  Too often, however, the ones who come to sit and holler at the school board remind me of the boots worn by the farmers those many years ago.

They should be left outside the building.

In Memory Of Former State Representative Terry Musser

Former State Representative Terry Musser, age 70, died on November 1st.   In 1984, he was elected to the State Assembly for the 92nd District, and served for twenty-four years, retiring in 2008.

I want to express my regard and respect for this man.  I knew him when working in the statehouse and always thought him a step above many others serving in the assembly.

If you knew Musser in his official capacity as a legislator you would agree with me that he was a straight shooter and forthright when he talked to you.  He dealt with state issues as he felt them in his gut.  But what so set him apart from many others was the fact he was just pleasant to be around.  That sometimes can be a rare find in the capitol.

During the first budget session, which seemed to linger on for longer than anyone thought possible, it was Musser who pulled up a chair next to mine in front of a large window in the parlor.  A cool breeze was wafting in, which was in stark contrast to the chambers which were not air conditioned.   He needed a break, and so it was there we had our first real conversation.   I recall he wanted to know where I came from.  After telling him I had worked in radio he leaned in so no else could hear and said with a thumb pointing to the chamber, “Some of them should never be given a microphone.”

During a road trip around the state for the Tourism Committee he walked up to me in a bar where we were to have dinner.  He handed me a beer he had bought saying,” After a day with Lary (Swoboda) you really need one of these.”

Over the years I always felt Musser was just ‘one of the guys’ in the building.  He was down to earth and real.

With his passing we have lost one of the most decent who has served our state.

Chuck Grassley Wearing Two Glasses (At Once)

On the CBS Evening News, a most laughable photo was taken of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wearing two pairs of eyeglasses–at once.  Now I have seen a Wisconsin state representative walking inside the statehouse reading two books at once—but wearing only one set of glasses.  So I did a double-take of the television image, which only served to underscore that someone who was putting the story together about the Iowa Senator had less than warm feelings for the man.

But the image did spin me back to the time when State Assemblyman Lary Swoboda returned to his office after having taken a road trip with fellow legislator Barbara Gronemus.  He looked different from when he had departed just hours before.  Finally, someone asked, “Did you get new glasses?”  Lary said no, but reached up to check the ones on his face.  Sheepish is not the word to describe when recognition settled upon him that when leaving Gronemus’s car he reached on the dashboard for glasses, and took the first one he found…..well, he did have a 50/50 chance.

An assembly page was called and dispatched to make the embarrassing change.

So, yes, I get how those odd things can happen.  But to place a sitting senator in public meetings looking like a doddering fool means that somewhere in Washington there is a staffer who is having too much fun at the job.  At least Swoboda had aides who knew a good story also needs a humane ending.

And so it goes.