Thursday August 8, 1974.
A beautiful, calm, late summer, early evening day in Lake Country, Haliburton, Ontario.
My memory doesn't hold what I or my family did up at the cottage that day but there is no doubt what we did when we came in for the evening.
The adults were seated around the Dining Room Table - it must be a farmer-thing to sit at a table - I, not having been a farm girl, always thought that habit strange when perfectly good, comfy chairs and couches were on offer in a room constructed for the purpose of living – the Living room.
With that personal logic firmly in place, then as now, I took my preferred seat in an antique rocking chair which sat opposite and catty-corner the portable TV and the picture window looking out on to Maple Lake. I remember the leaves were already turning but the grass was still very green, no real summer heat to speak of at this setting-sun hour unless one meant the white-hot heat coming from the picture tube which projected out to us all the Washington DC announcement being aired, live, on the CBC channel. We were lucky to tune in any TV station in those days, for aerials on roof-tops were the only technological innovation available to dial in a decent picture.
Luckily, or unluckily, for me, that Thursday was a clear TV viewing day and the image of a slate-blue backdrop curtain, a nondescript desk and a Brylcremed-hair man in a dark blue suit, well familiar to us all, filled the screen;
“Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made ...” he began.
This televised speech was not unexpected by most but for me, at age nine, what you expect and how you react to that expectation were two different things.
The worst time of life to have any traumatic event must be at the age of nine. You're old enough to understand what is said and are able to see with your own eyes events which are unfolding but not old enough to properly digest nor appreciate nor truly comprehend the Big Picture. What adults witnessed that night they knew would eventually be overcome. An imaginative child like me saw this Thursday at 9:01pm, as the end of the world;
“Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow....”
My ears tuned out after that sentence.
If I had been an adult, I would have known the Vice President would have had the seamless transfer of power, that oft unheard, unseen, quiet, sedate, level-headed soul, the former Congressman from the Warren Commission, Mr. Bland himself, known by all as Gerald Ford. And knowing all that, I would have realized that the big chair in the Oval Office would have been well occupied, surely preventing my wild speculation,
“We're going to be invaded by Martians or Russians,
or Russian Martians!
Nobody is minding the store!”
My Mom had joined me in the Living room when Nixon got well into his speech, sitting, she did, to my left, on the couch, while the rest of the adults were still holding court at the Dining Room table, talking in low tones, solemn, serious. I looked left and right in a rather controlled panic to see if anyone else in the cottage was as frightened as me and although no adult was panicking, none were jumping for joy either. They all had that look parents have when their kiddies have done something wrong – that look of disappointment. I knew Nixon must have been very bad.
Admittedly, I long ago knew he had been very bad. I, like the rest of North America had been glued to the TV all those months before, watching the Ervin Senate Hearings but somehow I couldn't, or wouldn't, connect the wrong-doing stated there, with Nixon. Naive, I guess I was, believing that Presidents don't lie, Presidents don't cheat, Presidents don't cover up mistakes...because, well, Presidents never make mistakes, right?
That Thursday, as the sun sank low on Maple Lake and gave the land a soft orange glow amid the fluttering leaves of the maple trees, I knew something terrible had happened and now we were all alone...without Him.
I know what you're thinking, you're thinking, Big Whoop, and what do you care, MsBurb, for you are a Canadian and Nixon wasn't exactly Pierre Trudeau or John Kennedy, even on his best day?
But Nixon, like Kennedy and Trudeau, were of my Father's generation, all born from 1913-1919. Nixon and my Father both hearkening from Northern Ireland, both with that uptight demeanour, overly proud, formally dressed, card-carrying members of that Brylcremed-hair crowd. Those men were all of our Fathers back then and if a seemingly strong, intelligent, controlled man like Nixon can do wrong and can be severely punished, banished to God knows where after such a fall from grace, what about Us, their kids, what about our future?
Trusting no more in our Leaders was the populous result of my generation, fear of change and political uncertainty forever flooding the ether. This was not the era of FDR's New Deal where when Franklin said keep your money in the bank and trust the system to protect you, citizens listened and heeded his request and trusted in his judgment, and in doing so saved the country. No, as of this Thursday August 8th, the citizens had stopped listening, stopped trusting and we as a generation would never feel secure again.
Weeks before I had heard Dean's whistle-blowing testimony and I had watched as his wife nervously twirled her earring, fearing for her husband's fate. I had watched bug-eyed when Deputy Assistant to the President, Alexander Butterfield, finally had to let the cat out of the bag and divulge that, yes, all had been taped. I had watched the fight with the Supreme Court for admissibility of those tapes and I had heard the commentators and the adults around me shake their heads in disbelief after the Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon's only option was to fire anyone in his way. An Imperial President had reigned in North America, completely impossible to accept. Was the Saturday Night Massacre a shade of the Nazi Night of the Long Knives? Maybe, scarily, so.
Things were unraveling, the future was growing dim...
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
And Yeats poem was becoming real and I feared...
...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
Was it only me who could sense The Monster approaching? Stern faces on the adults, to be sure, in '73 to '74, everyone had been glued to their TVs, reading every inch of newsprint, all those weeks and months leading up to this moment but no one, but me, feared the monster yet to come? We had a Super Power leader in Gerald Ford after all, no Martians or Russians, or Russian Martians for that matter were “...loosed upon the world...”, or were they?
From that Thursday night until this very moment, we, my generation, the citizens of the West, have crawled through this life always looking over our shoulders, always fearing the monster. He was no longer under our beds, he now inhabited the Oval Office and although we may not voice it as adults, we fear his power, we distrust his judgment and we very rarely heed his words.
November 22nd, 1963, we may have lost our naivety that great men can be brutally killed by a nobody but on August 8, 1974, we lost our willingness to put the word “great” before any other political leader's name ever again.
The mistrust which was born out of Watergate has now morphed these forty years into outright political paranoia and the hysteria therein is growing ever rampant. Extremists like Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and yes, even Watergate's own, Gordon Liddy, have thriving radio shows preaching fear and distrust, espousing preparation for The End, encouraging gullible, ill-bred, ill-educated Americans to rise up, take up those arms they cherish so much and fight the battle against tyranny – the moniker affixed to any American President, post-Nixon, most especially any Democrat, Harvard-alumni Catholic with skin anything less than lily-white.
The irony of this tirade on tyranny – the extremists are all ultra Right Wing, Republican. If Nixon were alive today, he would be criticized by these fear-mongers as being too centrist, too egalitarian, horridly too liberal. Heck, Tricky Dick would most likely despise what the Republican Party stands for today and surprise us all by crossing the aisle and become a Democrat!
The ripples of that Thursday night still roll out into our political waters. The mistrust and fear which was germinated in us all then, has fermented and grown feral. Could Nixon have foreseen the permanent damage, well beyond the initial lies and the cover-up? Can any of us foresee the damage yet to come?
Now I know why normal nine year olds are supposed to be in bed by nine. Wish I had been.
Title Photo: Retro TV – glogster.com, Spaceship – rq87.flyingomelette.com; Maple Lake Photo: foreverafangirl.com; Nixon on TV photo: movieposterkey.com; Martian Cartoon Photo: desura.com; Stalin-Martian Cartoon – ign.com; John Dean Senate Photo: nixondetached,com; Monster Cartoon: montauk-monster.com