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!