The Seeds of Reality Check
Richard M. Nixon, August 8, 1974, speaking from the Oval Office:
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
Ah, yes. Forty years ago to the day I write this; I was eleven years old lying on the floor in front of my parent's trusty RCA, pawing through the new reprints of Will Eisner's Spirit. Eisner created and produced many of his legendary character's exploits in the 1940s', but was resurrected in the 70s' as part of a growing interest in the anti-hero, vigilante, masked marauder; half on the side of the law and the other half in the shadows; a "spirit". Unbeknownst to me, it was the perfect metaphor for what I was about to witness at nine bells; the president of the United States resigning his post, embattled, disgraced, busted cold for high crimes against the Constitution. It was a defining moment for me. It shaped all that has been written in this space for coming on 17 years this month.
The first thing I recall about the presidency was tapes of John F. Kennedy's speeches on space exploration that came with a record album of the 1969 moon landing, a celebratory moment of patriotism which froze the nation in wonder just five years prior. The fallen president had foretold the triumph, the record boasted. To a kid, just learning about world events, it was as if Kennedy was still president. He was not. I was told he had been gunned down six years before. I recall every November 22nd people would drive their cars around Pelham Parkway and Morris Park Avenue with the lights on as a tribute to the fallen president.
This was my introduction to American politics; murder and crime.
Of course, this became something of a joke in my first civics classes in 1976, the year of the nation's bicentennial celebrations; where for the first time I would learn about the origins of the nation with bold talk of liberty and God and apple pie. Three years removed from the horrors of Viet Nam, another sunny display of America's stains. I remember those images from television too. But war was still something of a romantic haze for me; war comics, war films, war games, war toys. Imagination over reality, like a president's voice heralding a mission launched during the first term of a man I was now watching quit the most powerful job in the free world, Richard M. Nixon.
I spent the summer of 1973, the first one in Freehold, New Jersey, a long way from the Bronx, and a long way from everything I had known for the first decade of life, watching the Watergate senate hearings, or as it was known then, "the trials". I had yet to make friends, and it was so damn hot outside and the bugs were incessant and every TV station - we had five of them then - had the damn thing on. So I found myself weirdly in a trance in front of the tube watching powerful be-suited men sweating beneath a torrent of hard queries couched in the kind of moral berating I had come to know all too well in Catholic school.
These people were in big trouble, and America was coming apart.
My parents, especially my mom, tended to downplay these things, as there was a sense in our house that these people were going about "business as usual", and too bad for them, they were caught. Could have been the last guy or the guy before that, but it happened to be the 37th president of the United States going down. Hell, my parents had watched the entire western hemisphere balanced like an egg on a high wire in October of 1962. Could you blame them for not batting an eye at this? I was barely one month old, their first son, and a good portion of the planet was minutes from annihilation as Soviet warships approached U.S. shores. Forty-one days into life and it could have been curtains for me.
So maybe America wasn't really coming apart. Maybe it was just Nixon coming apart. Not every president uses the White House as a criminal syndicate and not every administration has some 48 persons indicted for crimes and a dozen or so others do time and the chief quitting outright on national television. Of course, we still had yet to endure Ronald Reagan, whose administration still holds the record for 138 indictments and 21 convictions, or Bill Clinton, who was officially impeached, something Nixon never was, or whatever crazy shit George W. Bush finagled and this new guy, same as the old guy, whose NSA still runs amok, as he drags us back into Iraq.
But it was hard for me and my generation to grasp, that weird cusp of the Boomers; too young to get high at Woodstock or worry about things like race riots, assassinations and the draft, but too old to ignore the glaring fact that those at the top could not to be trusted. Since much of what the government did prior to the Kennedy assassination, Viet Nam and Watergate was viewed as a deep matter of public trust, this was a new way of understanding.
All of it began to unravel, thank goodness, in my formative years; this charade that all-is-well and that the smart and powerful have everything under control, was fast coming to a close. The Kennedy assassination opened a nation's eyes, Viet Nam gave us something to see, and, well, the crimes of Nixon pretty much sealed it.
You might call it a reality check.
August 8, 1974.
Forty years ago.