Time to confess up. I have been wrong before. Saying I have been wrong before is not the same as saying I am wrong right now. Anyhow, I once got it very wrong. OK, maybe other times, as well, but very wrong this time.
It was 40 years ago. Today. Look it up on your calendar.
It was Saturday, and I was leaving my contract work in Austin, in my Dodge pickup with the radio on. The man doing the news was telling me that some men had been arrested overnight for burglary. They had been caught breaking into the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. The implication was obvious, even to me.
“That’s it,” I proclaimed loudly and with self-assurance, only to myself. “Now he’s gone too far. There goes the election.”
Richard Nixon was running for a second term as president, and it was looking as though his second term was going to be a lot like his first. Maybe not to some, but to me it seemed that Mr. Nixon was the person always ready to take a short cut, to tweak the rules when they became inconvenient. There was a history.
Helen Gahagan Douglas was a liberal Democratic congresswoman from California in a race against Richard Nixon. Somebody else had called her The Pink Lady, “pink right down to her underwear,” and Nixon was quick to make good use of the smear. Douglas was not a communist, and Nixon knew it, but much later he justified his actions as doing something shady to accomplish a nobler goal. That noble goal presumable was to get a conservative Republican elected.
As president, Nixon gathered about him people with a similar inclination to let slip the grip of legality if the goal was noble. An example I recall was a policy advanced by Attorney General John Mitchell. It was called “preventive detention,” and the aim was to confine people to prevent them from committing crimes they had not committed yet. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution effectively prohibits such action, but Mitchell had no problem with this inconvenience. The administration of 1972 pronounced it was for “law and order.” Only later did we learn it was not so much the former but the latter.
Anyhow, I knew or thought I knew all of this on 17 June 1972, and in my mind’s eye I saw Nixon watching the January 1973 inauguration ceremonies on TV, if not on a TV in a jail cell. Boy was I ever wrong.
The drama began that day and progressed like a train wreck in slow motion for the next 26 months until finally we watched Nixon waving goodbye to a grateful nation as he boarded an Air Force helicopter. Boy, was I ever wrong! Vice President Spiro Agnew was already out of office. He was not involved in the Watergate shenanigans, but in the intervening time he had been exposed as a politician for hire, exchanging his public responsibilities for the smallest amount of cash. And I never saw it coming. Was I ever wrong!
The drama of 1972 began when Washington Post reporters Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein got onto the story that first day and dogged the issue until the machinery of American justice could no longer ignore the facts. The climax seemed to come when Nixon’s White House secretary Rosemary Woods “accidentally” erased 18 crucial minutes of an Oval Office tape recording. When transcripts of Oval Office recordings were finally delivered under subpoena they revealed Nixon asking the FBI directory to stop investigating the Watergate burglary. A few days later Nixon was waving goodbye from the door of a helicopter.
And all of this took 24 months longer than I originally thought it would on that spring day in 1972. Was I ever wrong!
The next time I seem to you to be a bit cocky and full of home-grown assurance, will you please remind me of June 1972 when I was ever so wrong. If I did it once, readers, I will do it again.