Memories Of August 8, 1974, Nixon Resignation From One Middle-Class Wisconsin Home

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 of summer day in my childhood. So it is not hard to fathom how exciting following the news of 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 wanted 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 close 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 a lasting impression 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 seeing 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 cover 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 to play 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. We would not again see a political meltdown until the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election unfolded in horror and shameful actions in front of our eyes on January 6, 2021.

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 the 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 his 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.

What Happens On July 5th?

1974 Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, Republic File photo

Last month in New Lisbon, Wisconsin a retired judge was shot and killed at his home by a gunman with a list targeting several judicial members, along with the governor of Michigan.  In June, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was threatened by an armed man outside his home. The far-right groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021 are another serious reflection of a growing threat to democracy.

During the July 4th holiday period it is customary for people to take stock of how the nation was founded, and be reminded of the guiding principles of our country. While that occurred again this year there was a far more obvious conversation taking place which results from a deeply dismaying mood as the citizenry looks down the road. Given the growing details about the January 6th insurrection at the nation’s Capitol and the far-right lurch of the Supreme Court, once a body considered the objective arbiter for an anxious country, the public is on edge, questioning, and most uncertain regarding what events will follow.

Each chapter of our national story is unique, but with each one history proves a united front must develop and present itself for the best interests of the people. In June, we observed the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. With some of that news coverage, we were reminded that Republican Senators Barry Goldwater, John Rhodes, and Hugh Scott told President Nixon that he would be impeached, convicted, and removed from office, and in so doing, while not asking Nixon to resign, painted a full picture of what would follow if he did not.

That important example from the past should be seen as what our nation now requires.

The citizenry is now reeling from a sweeping set of decisions that were ideologically ruled by the Court in the past two weeks. A decision relaxed gun laws in a nation that is brimming with roughly 390 million of them, another allowed religious schools that openly discriminate against gay and transgender students to be allowed state funding, and then the scorched-earth ruling that overturned a 50-year precedent that ended a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

While the Court was making numerous moves that ran counter to modern society and neglected to strive for working with a living Constitution, people were watching and reading more about the January 6th attack on democracy. The erratic and autocratic moves of Donald Trump are coming to light as the House Committee proceeds with hearings, providing more insight into his strong desire to head to the Capitol and join the violent throng he had incited.

This is a time, given the threats to democracy along with increasing political violence, as witnessed in New Lisbon, when the leadership class from both political parties should be united in a common cause and speak to the nation. There is a genuine need for comity and some mature guidance about how this nation moves forward. Together.

Instead of a much-needed national conversation, however, we are mired in a political mess where the base of the Republican Party is wedded to conspiracy theories, and their elected leaders are too timid to speak truthfully, for fear of retribution from within the GOP. Even when it was made known Trump knew his supporters were toting deadly weapons on January 6th, and still wanted to turn off the devices that would alert law enforcement of those guns and knives, there was an almost complete hush from Republicans over the grave threat such weapons posed.

Perhaps the boldest and most audacious outrage occurred when Trump pleaded, as we know from a 2020 audio recording, for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” him another 11,780 votes. Incredibly, almost no one on the Republican side of the aisle cared, objected, stood up, and said, “Enough!”

Recently, news reports from those close to Trump show that he is planning a run for the White House in 2024, and could announce his bid prior to this year’s mid-term elections. Even after all of the proven transgressions and absurd behavior exhibited by Trump, it is fair to say, based on polling, that between a third and half of Republicans would probably vote for him should his name appear on a ballot.

While it is assumed that there will be a strong competitive field for the GOP presidential primaries the question is if other contenders will mimic the boorish and dangerous behavior of Trump or elevate the conversation to what was considered the norm prior to 2015? At some point, it is imperative that the party re-establish guardrails on our political culture.

Why we need to have a citizenry rooted in facts, and our political class acting with maturity and reasonableness is based on the growing data that suggests violence based on partisan leanings is increasing. As I wrote at the start of this post a growing threat is gaining steam.

Six months ago it was reported a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found about 1 in 3 Americans believe violence against the government can at times be justified. That is simply repugnant to anyone invested in the process of democracy.

That finding represented the largest share to feel that way since the question has been asked in various polls for more than two decades. The percentage of adults who say violence is justified is up, from 23 percent in 2015 and 16 percent in 2010 in polls by CBS News and the New York Times.

Who we are as Americans is as much a question as where we are heading as a nation. On the July 4th holiday we again consider what ideals we knew to have merit at the infancy of what would become America. The question now, however, is what we will do on July 5th to secure those ideals for a nation that is angry, fretful, and truly apprehensive.

What might Goldwater, Rhodes, and Scott do? And who will be the modern incarnation of them?

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 Might Founding Fathers Say About Trump’s Seditious Conspiracy?

Those who lived in the 1970s surely felt that Watergate was the granddaddy of all political scandals. After all, a vast array of illegal activity that led back to the White House and into the Oval Office resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Many people after following the 2-plus years of news reporting and committee hearings about Watergate understandably felt there was no way a more sinister and underhanded person could be president.

Over the past week, large segments of the nation have been watching the January 6th House Committee hearings. What we are witnessing being fleshed out with testimony and facts is nothing short of stunning. After all that we have endured over the past six years, it might seem impossible to be confronted with anything that sets one further back on their heels. Even though the framework of illegal and unconstitutional actions by Donald Trump and those around him has long been known, having a congressional committee detail the actions was still very hard to stomach.

The nation is learning about the insidious and seemingly ever-sprawling plot to commit a seditious conspiracy against the United States. A duly elected president was to be tossed aside like a burger wrapper and Trump was to be installed as an illegal one. James Patterson could not plot a more devastating drama.

But what struck me to my core was learning Trump was so desperate to retain power and authority that he stated Vice President Mike Pence deserved to be murdered by the bloodthirsty mob at our nation’s Capitol. The reason Trump felt that way, of course, was that Pence refused to go along with sedition.

There is no doubt when it comes to political chicanery and illegal activities Nixon was a mere piker compared to the outlandish and outrageous actions plotted and undertaken by Trump. It seems almost unfair to place Nixon and Trump into the same editorial cartoons, such as those now being published as we near the 50th anniversary of the famed break-in.

From the night of the November 2020 election, Trump knew that his hold on power was ebbing away, and when the final count from several states, including Wisconsin, was reported no question remained he had lost his bid for reelection.

But rather than accept the election returns from the balloting by his fellow citizens he instead chose to become the first president in the history of our country to dishonor the peaceful transfer of power.

I want to stay on that point for a minute. I wonder what the Founding Fathers would say if they could be made aware of these events and able to be interviewed?

What might President George Washington, a former general who relinquished his military command, and stepped away from an office he was twice elected to so a civilian could take the reins of power have to say? What might James Madison, who history calls the Father of the Constitution, have to say about the blatant power grab and attempted usurpation of what we know as Madisonian democracy?

Ben Franklin, a journalist and newspaper owner, would surely have another line of inquiry.

On the day of a Jan. 6th committee hearing, with much of the nation following events, Fox News spent 45 minutes detailing a surgical procedure for Ozzy Osborne. The dismantling of the very fabric of our democracy was being detailed by members of congress and a major news outlet felt there was no need to inform their viewers as to the dangers faced by the nation.

Franklin, doubtless with a pithy tone, would demand to know why a news operation would willingly deflect from a story that cuts to the essence of our democracy?

Much of our nation is discussing the damning headlines about the plots and attacks on the very foundation of our constitutional government. It is easy to get inundated with the latest breaking news about this story. As such, I would hope that at some point we can, as a nation, reflect on the ideals the Founders sought for the nation. It is glaringly clear why our constitutional guardrails can no longer just be taken for granted.

Why Journalism And Anonymous Sources Matter, Supreme Court’s Draft On Roe V. Wade Makes Point

We are told by some partisans that news sources are to be distrusted, reporters are not integral to democracy, and that there are even ‘alternative facts’.

Late Monday evening, all those lines fell faster than Russians on the Ukraine battlefield.

It was reported by Politico the Supreme Court has voted to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, according to an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.

The ramifications of this story are enormous. Not only for health care rights for women, but also for privacy being understood, for decades, as an unenumerated right. Privacy has been a foundation for several large court decisions from the right to use contraception, to engage in private consensual sexual activity, and to marry someone of the same sex.

Make no mistake about how the legal weight of this abortion ruling could move the court going forward.

While all these issues and many more will be debated at length starting with Tuesday morning coffee in homes around the nation, I wish to give credit to the journalism profession, and specifically two reporters.

Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward.

We all should be proud of how they did their job with this story.

It needs to be noted that these journalists not only reported the story but also gave the full rounded coverage by writing that “it’s unclear if there have been subsequent changes to the draft” since February. They were not aiming for going beyond the fact the draft is a product from February.

They also fully grasped the gravity of the story surely being one of the newsroom’s biggest scoops and surely the biggest headline of their lives. They wrote that “No draft decision in the modern history of the court has been disclosed publicly while a case was still pending.”

The news about the court draft was able to be reported by the reporters due to the role of an anonymous source. It is these sources who are vital to a fuller understanding of what our government does and journalists are doing their job by then reporting on the information once it is firmly understood to have validity.

I understand that most people are not sitting around their living rooms contemplating anonymous sources. I can imagine how conservative media will be apoplectic today and feverishly disdainful of this news story, and how it was obtained.

To those who do not understand the role of anonymous sources, I have one name to add to this post.

Mark Felt.

It is absolutely true to say that had Felt not been an anonymous source there very well would not have been a Watergate story as we have come to know. It was “Deep Throat’ who alerted Bob Woodward in those parking garage conversations that presidential abuse was running rampant in the Nixon White House.

The pursuit of news, facts…the truth… is what reporters do. And anonymous sources are very much a way to allow the public to know what their government is doing.

And so it goes.

Donald Trump Phone Log Gap Requires A Modern “Rose Mary Stretch”

When it comes to the seditious and treasonous activity encouraged and undertaken by Donald Trump following the 2020 election it needs to be stated, much akin to the actions of the cover-up by President Richard Nixon and his White House following the famed Watergate break-in, that there is no place to hide from the light of day.

The news today showing internal White House records from the horrific day of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters has a stupifying gap in Trump’s phone logs of seven hours and 37 minutes!

Poor Rose Mary Woods, the thicker than thieves friend and secretary to Nixon fell on the political and legal sword, taking the blame for the missing 18-minutes of a most vital, and quite obviously highly-incriminating, Oval Office tape recording. She even performed a most illogical and embarrassing ‘re-creation’ of how the erasure occurred.

Nixon historians have long understood that Woods had intimate knowledge about the Watergate scandal. But now Trump, in light of the criminal activity that continues to unfold surrounding the insurrection of January 6, 2021, needs a modern version of the “Rose Mary Stretch.”

The crux of the latest stab at the heart of democracy is the lack of an official White House notation of any phone calls placed to or by Trump for 457 minutes, from 11:17 A.M. to 6:54 P.M. on the day his autocratic plans were put into practice. It goes without saying the audacity of destroying or hiding records plays counter to the facts which are demonstrated by broad-based reporting about phone conversations Trump had with allies during the attack

In March 2016 Bob Woodward gave a presentation about Watergate. He made a statement that reflected well on the national nightmare that was all the assorted crimes and criminal spokes of the wheel that we call Watergate.

“It has been said that Watergate was a ‘lust for political power.’  True, but it was much more—a broader, organized, well-funded, mean-spirited, criminal, secret assault on democracy.

I know that same statement can lean forward in history and also sum up Donald Trump and his brazen attack on democracy.

Who can now be found to explain–akin to Rose Mary Woods-why over 7 hours of phone logs simply disappeared?

And so it goes.

Dear Amazon…Another Watergate Book Delivery, Please

Just when you thought there was not another Watergate book to read comes, well, one more that is gaining great reviews. As with this New York Times review written by the much-respected Douglas Brinkley.

As a Nixon history buff, this topic still resonates and fascinates me.

“While Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, thrived amid disorder, Nixon maintained a clean desk and kept his circle of advisers small. “Just one dinky little phone to keep in touch with his people,” a flabbergasted Johnson scoffed after dining with Nixon. “That’s all — just three buttons and they all go to Germans!” — those being the chief of staff, Haldeman; the domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman; and the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Reporters variously referred to this team as the German Shepherds, the Berlin Wall, the Fourth Reich and “the King’s Krauts.”

With granular detail, Graff writes about the white-collar criminals, hatchet men and rogues who populated the outer circles of Nixon’s covert operations. The deputy campaign manager, Jeb Magruder, arguably comes off the worst, “an empty vessel of a man, all too ready to fulfill others’ ambitions, taskings and visions.” Though competent enough to help devise Nixon’s winning 1972 re-election slogan, “Now More Than Ever,” he displayed a carelessness that saw him nonchalantly introducing Liddy to Washington reporters as CREEP’s “man in charge of dirty tricks.” This caused Liddy to beg the White House counsel, John Dean, to fire the preppy loudmouth. “Magruder’s an asshole, John,” Liddy pleaded, “and he’s going to blow my cover.” Magruder stayed on, then flipped to federal prosecutors in exchange for reduced charges.

The heroes of “Watergate” are predictable: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. Charting their trajectory from the arraignment of the Watergate burglars on June 17, 1972, until Vanity Fair revealed the identity of Deep Throat in 2005, Graff celebrates their tenacity while also documenting dramatic embellishments in their best-selling memoir “All the President’s Men.”

Watergate studies can be a rabbit hole of hard-to-decipher tapes and half-baked theories. As a former Politico Magazine editor, Graff chafes at hunches and internet misinformation. Therefore, it’s notable that he suggests the C.I.A. might have set up the voice-activated system that sank Nixon’s ship. The mysterious figure of Alexander Butterfield looms large in this regard. According to Graff, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, believed that Butterfield, who installed the White House taping system, was a C.I.A. operative. “I have to agree,” Haldeman is quoted as saying. “She may have a point.”

John Dean Recalled Gordon Liddy During UW-Madison Law School Speech

G Gordon Liddy in 1977 after his release from prison: he had served four years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping CREDIT: FRED R CONRAD/NYTNS/REDUX/EYEVINE

As a Richard Nixon history buff, I would be remiss if not commenting about the death of G. Gordon Liddy. It was, after all, his character, or lack thereof, which dealt one of the harshest blows to the Nixon White House. He masterminded dirty tricks and created the upside-down burglary in the Watergate complex. Others were also more than complicit in a series of crimes and attempts to undermine the law, but Liddy holds a special place for being ruthless. I have always questioned if he had a moral anchor. He seemed to relish in the wildly absurd, without a care about the institutions of the nation that were being damaged.

As my mind flashed back over the decades of Nixon, Watergate, and the newly departed I landed on a memory from 2013. John Dean—yes, that one–spoke at the UW-Madison Law School. I attended and was really pleased to have first-hand proximity to a central figure from a chapter of history that simply enthralls me. He was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.

John Dean October 2013 at UW Madison Law School Credit: Gregory Humphrey

As John Dean started his presentation late that afternoon the lady introducing him had a typical-sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned, and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

That set the tone for the time he was on stage. By being smart, agile with words, and comfortable in his own skin Dean held everyone’s attention.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still seems utterly absurd.

No one could hold back, however, when Gordon Liddy was referred to by Dean as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   

Dean concluded his remarks on a tougher and more biting topic. It was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that should be a prime lesson recalled about that entire episode. The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, Dean noted, came down to incompetence, the arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon

Liddy was one of those lawyers.

I do wish to leave this post on a lighter note about Liddy. Wednesday morning on NPR someone quipped a person has to be over 60 to recall Liddy as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, let alone that he held his hand over a flame. So the last memory from Liddy is that be made some of us feel old(er)!