Fifty years seems a long time. However, entire perspective on the calendar depends on the point of view. If you’re a youngster, thoughts on a three-month summer vacation from school could easily appear as forever-time, but if you’re in your mid-70s, 90 days is a near-about finger snap. And with even half a century gone, time can appear as if just yesterday.
However, the reality is not a metaphorical ‘finger snap‘ — 50 years is a shitload, long-ass time no matter the age.
A near-disconcerting aspect of that old age is the long view. I graduated from high school this month 55 years ago, 1967. I underwent a hernia operation just out of the eighth grade this month 59 years ago, 1963. Images are there but accompanied by very little information on what the brain-picture is flashing — personal history might be the weirdest of all to accurately understand.
Today 50 years ago, a badly-botched burglary at the DNC’s Watergate office complex in Washington charged US history like an electrical political volt into the now. In the wake of the half-century anniversary of the ‘Watergate’ scandal, its potent partner could be the current House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection/riot/coup at the US Capitol, though, in our particular case we’re in the way-possible death throes of American democracy.
Dick Nixon did have some semblance of shame. Our contemporary assholes not only have zero shame, but cruelty is their point.
Five nit-twit to-be burglars at the Watergate were easily nabbed by cops, who quickly grasped the situation:
The police soon realized that this “was not your normal, typical burglary,” Barrett said.
Not only were the burglars dressed in suits and ties, but they had bugging devices, tear gas pens, numerous rolls of film, locksmith tools, and thousands of dollars in hundred dollar bills, he said.
On June 18, The Washington Post published its first article on the subject. It was bylined Alfred E Lewis, the reporter covering the police. But its list of contributors at the end also included the names Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Although the Watergate break-in news story was slow out the journalism gate, the event gathered media steam. And the rest was, as the saying goes, history. ‘Gate‘ became a catch-addition to just about all political scandals, even including near-current dangerous, way-dumb-ass conspiracy ones, as in ‘pizza-gate.’
And way-slow, too, was on my own, personal timeline.
In June 1972, I was getting ready for discharge from the US Air Force after four years of service and was ‘just‘ 23 years old. Then stationed at Eglin AFB in the panhandle of Florida, I’d just been accepted for the fall quarter at the University of Florida in Gainsville. After acquiring my AA from a local junior college at night, I was starting at Florida as a junior — I graduated in June 1974 (48 years ago) with a degree in journalism.
The time in the Air Force stunted my growth, both politically and socially/culturally — I completely missed the so-called cultural/social ‘revolution’ on so many levels and in so many ways. Due to my extreme naivete on all things political — under the influence of my immediate supervisor, a good-natured sergeant, I had developed a liking for William F. Buckley and his PBS show, “Firing Line“ — so, therefore, in November 1972 I shamefully stood in a slight drizzle and voted for Tricky-Dick Nixon.
My supervisor called Buckley, ‘Wild Bill,’ and although he knew Buckley was sometimes overbearing, he seemed to appreciate the bottom line (via Wikipedia): ‘Firing Line was mainly seen on weekends in low-rated afternoon or late-night time slots, because of the program’s admitted appeal to a small, “middle-brow” demographic group.‘
Sense of time further than half-a-century, and nowadays, ‘middle brow‘ doesn’t cut it:
In reflection, I can’t remember any political distinction between Democrat and Republican and just coasted on a naive-idiot approach — it wouldn’t take long, though, to realize ‘Wild Bill’ was a racist, asshole douchebag.
And in that explosive question,’can people change?’ — I know for a fact a person can, however, I’d guess it would depend on the person. If you’re open to reality and not just bullshit.
And the shift would also depend upon exposure.
The University of Flordia is one of the most liberal universities in the US — about five weeks before the Watergate break-in, one of the last college demonstrations against the Vietnam War took place at Florida (May 11, 1972) — and although I hadn’t a clue on what a ‘liberal’ actually meant, I quickly became enamored in a new view/verison of life. Despite the fact I was only just slightly older than most of the students, I was, however, a generation behind them in real living.
Adding fuel to that social/political change was a certain environment.
In taking a cue from somewhere, and in order to gain experience in journalism, I volunteered for the copy desk at Florida’s student newspaper, “The Florida Alligator,” a den of left-wing, anti-establishment people, all long-haired intellectuals reporting on the happenings at UF. The managing editor called himself a ‘Libertarian’ — what?
When I first started, ‘Alligator‘ offices were in the student center, an even bigger den of liberal activities, but because of some heavy liberal action the school administration figured was too liberal, the newspaper was kicked off campus the following year and became “The Independent Florida Alligator” — I moved from the copy desk then and became a reporter/writer. A wonderful, eye-opening time for the fall/winter quarters (’72/’73) on that copy desk, working evenings five days a week.
Over a short period, I changed — my-then first wife later told me she noticed a way-big shift in my personality and attitude almost immediately — though, not fast enough to stop that vote for Tricky Dick in November 1972. I could decipher a solid turnaround change, however, by the time Nixon ordered the ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam about six weeks after the election.
During an evening on the ‘Alligator‘ copy desk probably in November 1972 (I think), and within the context of my social/cultural standing in those days, I do remember, still pretty vividly, too, the first I saw and heard a female use the word, ‘fuck‘ in conversation. So profound an event I can still picture the scene 50 years later.
In memory, I most likely felt a bit like Sameer after watching Wonder Woman toss a big-ass thug across a bar: ‘“I am both frightened… and aroused.”‘
All bygones now.
One major explosion off the Watergate break-in occurred in journalism. And I was right in the middle of it. I finally got a job in April 1975 as an entry-level police reporter at “The Montgomery Advertiser” in Montgomery, AL. And in a similar sense to the ‘Alligator’ copy desk, a newsroom became real life again.
And being a journalist was a profession in which to make a difference.
In 1976, the showcase for the true calling — I hadn’t a clue I’d been mimicking Dustin Hoffman playing Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, even chain-smoking cigarettes everywhere:
Now 50 years later, most newsrooms are gone and newspaper journalism seems to be dying, and the MSM nowadays is missing the boat from that august period starting 50 years ago. A whole-different world nowadays and the journalism practiced is near defeated.
Media columnist Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post late last month noted Watergate journalism is a thing of the past:
Yet thinking about Watergate saddens me these days. The nation that came together to force a corrupt president from office and send many of his co-conspirator aides to prison is a nation that no longer exists.
It’s not just our politics that have changed. It’s also our radically transformed media environment.
“The national newspapers mattered in a way that is unimaginable to us today, and even the regional newspapers were incredibly strong,” Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” told me last week. I have been immersed in his nearly 800-page history — a “remarkably rich narrative,” former Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. called it in a review — which sets out to retell the story.
Graff depicts Watergate not as a singular event but as the entire mind-set of the Nixon presidency — “a shaggy umbrella of a dozen distinct scandals,” as he told me. By the time the break-in captured the attention of most Americans, they were essentially “walking into the second or third act of a play.”
Woodward and Bernstein were almost alone on the story for months. But eventually, the leading newspapers of the nation started to cover the hell out of the burgeoning scandal and the percolating questions of what — and when — the president knew about the burglary plot.
Americans read this coverage in their local papers; many cities still had two or more dailies at that point. Later, they were riveted by the proceedings of the Senate Watergate Committee, whose hearings were aired live on the three big television networks during the summer of 1973. Graff reports that the average American household watched 30 hours of the hearings, which were also rebroadcast at night by PBS. (“The best thing that has happened to public television since ‘Sesame Street,’ ” one Los Angeles Times TV critic noted.)
And the now:
Our media environment is far more fractured, and news organizations are far less trusted.
And, in part, we can blame the rise of a right-wing media system. At its heart is Fox News, which was founded in 1996, nearly a quarter-century after the break-in, with a purported mission to provide a “fair and balanced” counterpoint to the mainstream media. Of course, that message often manifested in relentless and damaging criticism of its news rivals. Meanwhile, Fox News and company have served as a highly effective laundry service for Trump’s lies. With that network’s help, his tens of thousands of false or misleading claims have found fertile ground among his fervent supporters — oblivious to the skillful reporting elsewhere that has called out and debunked those lies.
Not everything was good about the media world of the 1970s. It was almost entirely White and male, barely open to other views or voices. This was long before the democratizing effect of the Internet, which has elevated the ideas of people of color, women and other marginalized groups.
But it was a time when we had a news media that commanded the trust of the general public, a necessity in helping bring Nixon to justice. That, at least during his presidency, was never possible with Trump.
As we remember Watergate, we ought to remember how very unlikely its righteous conclusion would be today.
Richard M. Nixon’s presidency would have survived.
Good journalism is still a joy. And even with the media still using the ‘both-sides’ bullshit, there’s an occasional straight-shooting reporting being done. We can only hope it continues.
Even at half-a-century, once again here we are…