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Prompted By Watergate

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“What do you remember about Watergate?” asks this week’s prompt. I am finding it a very difficult question to answer. Right now I could tell you everything that happened from the night of the break-in at Democratic Headquarters on June 17, 1972 (two days after I graduated from college), to the resignation of Richard Nixon on August 9, 1974. But how much of it do I actually remember from when it happened and how much do I know from books and movies? It’s really hard to say.

I read the book All the President’s Men shortly after it came out in February 1974, and learned about a lot of what transpired from Woodward and Bernstein. Of course much of what we now refer to as Watergate is not even in that book. It only includes events through the revelation of the tapes by Alexander Butterfield (July ’73) and then a brief mention of the Saturday Night Massacre in a hastily-written last chapter. I have also read other books about Watergate over the years which have certainly supplemented my memories.

I do remember Archibald Cox being appointed special prosecutor in May 1973. The previous year he had been my college boyfriend’s thesis advisor. My BF and I had met in a junior tutorial on the Supreme Court (’70-’71), in which we actually read Supreme Court cases and wrote papers about them. An American Government concentrator, I had already studied the American Presidency as a sophomore, and requested a junior tutorial on either Congress or the Court. What I wanted was to learn about the Court, not take a mini-Constitutional Law course, but that was how it ended up. In truth, the best part for me was the one other student in the tutorial, a smart and handsome swimmer from Adams House who soon became my BF. The next year (’71-’72), while I wrote my thesis on the McCarthy presidential campaign, he wrote his on Congressional power under the 14th Amendment. When he went to ask Cox to be his thesis advisor, he was dubious about his chances for success, but I think Cox was intrigued by this undergraduate who could speak more knowledgeably about the law than most of his law students. My BF got a summa on the thesis, so obviously Cox did a good job of advising him. They spent a lot of time together, and I felt connected by association. A year later we were both excited by the special prosecutor appointment. By October ’73, when Cox was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre, my BF was at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship, and I was still in Cambridge (the other Cambridge, as they say in England), but we wrote letters to each other about it.

During that whole period I was working for the US Department of Transportation at their Systems Center in Cambridge, and every day as I walked in I saw the big pictures of Richard Nixon and John Volpe on the wall in the lobby. The reason DOT even had a facility in Cambridge was that Volpe, Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation, had previously been Governor of Massachusetts, and he wanted this pork barrel project for his home state. Most of the people I worked with were either Republicans or apolitical, so there wasn’t much talk about Watergate at work.

I was living in a wonderful old house on Cambridge Street (shown in the featured image) with three roommates. Arlene, the roommate I was closest to, was a graduate student in sociology at BU, working on a dissertation about people who wanted to have their bodies frozen when they died. When I consulted her this week about her memories of Watergate, here’s what she said: “I remember that summer [of 1973] sooo well. I was transcribing the interviews for my dissertation all summer. I had a piece of wood across cinder blocks and an electric typewriter. The Watergate hearings were on in the background all day. I filled you in when you came home and then we watched whatever was rebroadcast on the small tv in my room. I’m pretty sure you were home from work in time to watch the evening network news. [I was.]  The tv was a portable one and couldn’t have had more than a 12 inch screen. As I recall, I had a window air conditioner and a bright orange rug, so the viewing was comfortable. That all seemed so catastrophic then, but pales now in the age of Trump. Ugh!!”

I remember being impressed with Sam Ervin, the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee. He was from North Carolina, and presented a very folksy demeanor, but was obviously smart as a whip and did a great job of running those hearings.

I also remember being impressed with Peter Rodino, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee which oversaw the impeachment proceedings. He began his investigation after the Saturday Night Massacre, and meticulously spent eight months gathering evidence. He was my congressman, in fact had represented my New Jersey district since before I was born. When I visited Washington during high school and got gallery passes to watch Congress in action, the one for the House came from Rodino, and I met him then. I voted for him in 1972 at home, and in 1974 by absentee ballot, before changing my voter registration from New Jersey to California.

Finally, I remember watching Nixon’s resignation speech on Thursday, August 8, 1974, at 9:00 p.m, again on Arlene’s little television set. The resignation was effective at noon on Friday, which I think was also my last day at DOT. So Richard Nixon and I left the federal government at the same time, although for opposite reasons — he because he had broken the law, and I because I wanted to study law.

There is much that could be said about how horrified we all were forty-four years ago, and how evil we thought Nixon was, and how he now seems positively benign compared to the present occupant of the White House. However, I will leave that to others.

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Characterizations: been there, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Loved the way that you put this in the context of your own life and politics of the day, including the one degree of separation from Archie Cox, and how you brought Arlene’s memories into the story as well. Also fun hearing some of the names from that era that might have been forgotten: certainly not Ervin, but Butterfield, Volpe and good old Peter Rodino.

    And really liked how you brought up “the elephant in the room;” i.e, how positively angelic and stable Nixon seems in comparison with Trump. It has to be said, and thank you for saying it.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, you have a LOT to say about Watergate! I’m so glad you wrote this story, wonderful per usual. So interesting that your “BF” actually knew Archibald Cox, and, as John just said, the way you bring in the less-well remembered names from the era. Yes, we all hated Nixon, but he did seem…well, stable, compared to what’s going on now!

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you Betsy, your encouragement helped a lot, as did looking at the picture of my old house on Cambridge Street. And after I started thinking about Archie Cox I realized I did have a story to tell.

  3. John Zussman says:

    I like the honesty with which you tried to tease apart what you actually remember from what you’ve learned since, and your efforts to fill in the details by consulting others. As you told Betsy, one memory often leads to others. In the end we do our best to reconstruct what the past was like, and that in itself is valuable. And I love the coincidence of your leaving the federal government on the same day as Nixon, but for opposite reasons.

  4. I really enjoyed this recollection, Suzy. You told the story from the inside, from the POV of a law student engaged with the justice system, giving me a perspective I could not have understood. As usual, you bring us close to your experience with your narrative voice and I could feel the aha! moment when you decided you couldn’t remember da facts. Clearly, though, your foggy memory came into focus. And how interesting to have known Archibald Cox, at least in the second degree.

  5. Just caught up with this as a missed story Suzy,

    Looking back at Watergate, it does seem that Nixon’s dirty tricks pale now that we’ve been Trumped!

    And on a lighter note, what happened to that bright, handsome swimmer guy?

  6. I was living around the corner from you on Dana St., between Cambridge and Broadway during the time under review. You captured the impressionistic way a lot of us took in the unfolding events of Watergate. But working in an agency filled with GOP loyalists and people who tried to avoid politics gave your experience its own unique twist, I would say.

  7. P.S. You do realize Sam Ervin got his JD at HLS?

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