Home / Arts & Life / ‘I Have Passed the Point of Reacting’: How the Watergate News Cycle Reads Today

‘I Have Passed the Point of Reacting’: How the Watergate News Cycle Reads Today

There was no respite. “One gets a picture of the president and several of his formerly most trusted aides circling each other, each of them in a position to put the knife to the others,” Ms. Drew writes. “It is the court of the Borgias. It is the government of the United States.” The labor leader George Meany speculates openly about Nixon’s “dangerous emotional instability,” and Nixon pounds the press, advising Americans to beware “frantic, hysterical reporting.” When Carl Albert, the speaker of the House, is asked his view of the disappearance of key conversations from the White House tapes, he says simply, “I have passed the point of reacting.” Nixon’s assistant John Ehrlichman, musing about the nature of the Republic, says: “The president is the government.” The whole political life of the nation beggared belief. “It is harder than ever to know where reality stops and fantasy begins,” Ms. Drew wrote. “When, time after time, the incredible proves to be fact, it’s quite an achievement for something to remain incredible.”

Satire is a powerful political tool, but the sad (not “Sad!”; just sad) truth is that political spoofs rarely age well. And while Art Buchwald, the syndicated humor columnist, was no Aristophanes, he was working in that ancient tradition with his collection of pieces on Watergate, published as “I Am Not a Crook.” As Ms. Drew chronicled the political class’s purported exhaustion, Buchwald, in a comic voice, ventured an opposing theory: that Americans actually enjoyed the scandal. “Everyone from Joseph Alsop to Vice President Gerald Ford pleaded that the country should forget about Watergate so the president could devote his time and efforts to such important matters as the energy crisis,” Buchwald wrote. Then, using a character named Dr. Siegfried Siegfreed, a fictional psychiatrist, Buchwald added: “‘I think it would be more advantageous if the country could forget about the energy crisis so the president could devote his full time to Watergate.’

“‘Why do you say that, Doctor?’

“‘The truth is that practically everyone in the country gets a fiendish delight reading about Watergate, while very few people get any fun reading about the energy crisis.’”

Photo

President Richard M. Nixon at a White House news conference in March 1973.

Credit
Charles Tasnasi/Associated Press

It is easy to make fun of Nixon, but his story is in the end the most serious of narratives. In his account of Nixon’s collapse, “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon,” Theodore H. White raised an essential question: Why? Not why or how were the burglars caught or why or how did the president try to cover everything up, but, as White writes, “why Nixon did what he was caught doing.” To answer that fundamental query, White wrote, “one must accept the political reality that Richard Nixon and his men were, for the first time in American politics since 1860, carrying on an ideological war.”

As Nixon saw it, White wrote, “he, as president, was sole custodian of America’s power.” That power was under siege — from the counterculture at home and from Communism abroad. It was, to him, an existential struggle for the soul of the nation, and in such a battle the ends — the preservation of what White called “the embattled old culture” of patriotism and paychecks against the “new culture” of unrestricted personal choice — justified the means. Roughly put, it was Archie Bunker versus the Age of Aquarius, and Nixon was the president of the Bunkers. And if it required shadowy teams of burglars to fight that battle, then, by God, Nixon would use them.

In “Washington Journal,” Ms. Drew quoted “one of the wisest people” she knew. “He argues that the Nixon group was an accidental one, not likely to be replicated for perhaps a century,” she wrote, adding, in her own voice: “Perhaps this group was accidental, but we cannot count on that.”

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