50 Years Ago Today

I was living in Northern VA when everything unraveled and Nixon resigned, so I have some pretty strong memories of it being constantly in the news. The hearings were the lead story every night on the news, and we took the WaPo so it was front page stuff every day. The weirdest thing I remember was that my older brother and some of his friends were in a crowd outside the White House the night the news broke that Nixon would resign.

Years later, in the mid-80s, I was working in the DC area and would occasionally drive by the Watergate. It still had a sort of symbolic presence, really.

We stayed in the Howard Johnson’s across the street from the Watergate in the late 80’s and I thought about Nixon every time I looked out the window.

Sorry folks! Busy weekend here, but lots of stuff I wanna get to. So let’s backtrack a bit.

The Coronation

Ok, so yeah, technically not really a “coronation” as such, but about as close to it as you can get when Richard M. Nixon is sworn in for his second term on January 20th, 1973. Whether the country is in a better place than it was 4 years ago is a debate beyond the scope of anything I’m typing about. But what is undeniable is that the vast majority of voters in America believed the country was in a better spot than it had been in. And Nixon had been a part of a lot of that. He was absolutely a highly skilled politician.

His inauguration, then, is a celebration of all that, of the historical landslide victory, of America again seemingly ascendant (those oil prices though!). There are literally hours and hours of coverage of the inaugural weekend (the 20th of January was a Saturday) on network TV news. There are thousands of words and gigantic chunks of column inches on front pages of newspapers across the country celebrating the inaugural…and the term “Watergate” shows up (per some Brookings estimates) occupying about one-half of one percent of all of that. (And when it does show up, frequently it’s as this thing in the past.)

The person who was given the task of heading up the Inauguration planning was Jeb Stuart Magruder. He’d come into the Nixon orbit as a special assistant to the president for Nixon’s first term, and then graduated to Deputy Campaign Chairman for the re-election serving just under John Mitchell at CREEP.

And the thing to take away from any Watergate discussion is that Jeb Magruder was possibly the most unlikeable character in a criminal saga with PLENTY of unlikable characters to pick from. Magruder was a slick, crawlingly ambitious and malevolent presence in the campaign. From descriptions of not only his co-workers but also from history, he seems to have combined all the worst traits of Pete Campbell from Mad Men, the middle manager guy in RoboCop, and Grima Wormtongue.

It was Magruder who was instrumental in hiring Liddy and Hunt in the first place, and once they had their dirty tricks team in place, Magruder was the guy who served as the go-between between the group and Mitchell and Haldeman. And it was Magruder who had delivered the news to Liddy and Hunt that the bugs and phone taps planted in their FIRST Watergate break-in on May 28 hadn’t gotten any information. Magruder was the one who is most likely to have suggested the second, ill-fated break-in on June 17.

And, for now, Magruder is clean as a whistle. All of the Watergate 7 are playing ball with the White House, and the scandal hasn’t (yet) gone past them. But that dam is starting to show some weaknesses.

1,461 Days

When Nixon’s top aides and cabinet members reported to work on Monday, January 22, 1973, they found a nice surprise awaiting them.

President Nixon had gifted each office with an inscribed, ultra-fancy desktop calendar. On each, Nixon had engraved the following:

Every moment of history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. The Presidential term which begins today consists of 1461 days – no more and no less. Each can be a day of strengthening and renewal for America; each can add depth and dimension to the American experience. The 1461 days which lie ahead are but a short interval in the flowing stream of history. Let us live them to the hilt, working each day to achieve these goals.

Note to self: it actually might indeed be “less”.