Friday, July 03, 2015

Remembering Watergate Summer

Remember the summer of '74? Watergate summer.

CNN's Special on "The Seventies" last night took me back. "America vs. Richard Nixon." America won, I suppose, but it was an embarrassing episode in a raucous time. Vietnam was over, sort of, although the final blow was almost a year away. Demonstrations on campuses and in the streets had disappeared, replaced by a general malaise. I was a community college graduate who worked nights in the drug and alcohol ward in Daytona Beach's county hospital. In the fall, I would be off to the University of Florida to finish my degree.

Nixon was the enemy. I'd voted for McGovern and the anti-war faction within the Democratic Party. It seemed like a majority in 1972 but it was a delusion. Voters were pissed off that year. Mad at the longhairs and the draft dodgers. They were mad that despite everything they were told, we didn't seem to be winning in Vietnam. Integration had happened, dammit, and despite fleeing to the lily-white burbs, Middle America didn't seem to be better off or any happier. Now women were uppity, burning bras and demanding to be let out of the kitchen and into the ranks of management. Homosexuals were in the spotlight, exactly where they shouldn't be.

Nixon and his people knew all this. The Southern Strategy emerged. Turn all of those disaffected white Democrats into a voting bloc that would ensure a Republican landslide. And they did it, by gum. Solid South for Nixon. Almost a Solid USA, except for those lefties in Massachusetts (where I voted for the first time) and D.C. At the same time Nixon was making election history, investigators were looking into a third-rate burglary at the Watergate Hotel. Two years later, instead of cementing a generations-long lock on the White House for Repubs, Nixon was waving bye-bye from the steps of a chopper and flying off into the history books. The CNN special was barely able to hit the high and low points of Nixon's downfall. It was sad, even for those who hated Nixon. I remember my father saying that I could gloat now that Nixon was gone. But I could tell that he was shocked and saddened by the whole episode and I didn't feel like gloating.

What did Watergate do for me? Woodward and Bernstein inspired me to become a journalist. I never was a muckraker, except on the e-pages of this blog. My journalism career led me to some interesting places, but never the corridors of power. Watergate probably cemented my liberal politics, although I didn't realize that for decades. Nixon's departure, and his distraction from happenings in Vietnam, probably led to the end of that war in 1975. Ford pardoned the draft dodgers. Nixon probably would have never done that. Nixon's election strategy was used brilliantly by Ronald Reagan. Southern states no longer vote Republican as a bloc, or at least some left the fold to vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012. There are wackos in southern legislatures. But there are wackos in Wyoming's legislature too. The good news is that the Southern Strategists are dying off. The bad news is that I'm the same age as they are and just as close to the Grim Reaper.

What comes next?

God only knows -- and he/she/it ain't saying.


Sam said...


Excellent write-up. That was my second summer in Gainesville where I was waiting for that perfect roommate who was finally to arrive from Daytona. I had gotten the newspaper habit from my Dad, reinforced by the experience of getting to read Mike Royko 5 days a week before I left Chicago. And I had gotten my parents liberal view of the world. They did not like Tricky Dick and were never for the war. Having both been through WWII, they knew the difference and never understood the reason for the Vietnam war.

I read the Gainesville Sun every day and periodically picked up a copy of the St. Pete Times. It was stunning to see this slowly unfold and then slowly realize that it was all unravelling and Nixon was going to leave office in disgrace. He was done in by his arrogance.

You are right on the Southern Strategy and the ability to get people to vote against their own interests. It continues today with the cultural issues of religion and guns.

And watching the Iraq war fall apart was equally stunning, especially as the Neocons kept insisting they knew what they were doing and this would be no Vietnam.

Only question is what is next?


Michael Shay said...

What's next? If Repubs win the presidency in 2016, we'll be back full-force in Iraq quicker than you can say WMD. We're already creeping back in now.