An Odd Sorrow Recalled

I remember sitting on the green couch in the basement rec room, flanked by my parents, forty years ago tonight. I was twenty, and the three of us rarely watched TV together anymore, but that night, we watched as President Richard Nixon told us and the rest of the world that he would resign the presidency.

(As to why Nixon resigned, folks my age and nearby will likely remember very well the crimes, the cover-ups, the dirty tricks and the secret tapes; if, by chance, you’re younger than that or have amnesia, two books would provide a good start: All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and To Set the Record Straight: The Break-In, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon by Judge John J. Sirica.)

I don’t know how my folks felt about the president’s resignation. I’m pretty sure my mom was a Republican at the time and happily voted for Nixon in both 1968 and 1972. I think my dad was generally a Democrat, and almost certainly voted for Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968. I think that the ultra-liberal leanings of Democratic candidate George McGovern troubled Dad in 1972, but I’m not sure if that resulted in a vote for Nixon or not.

Me? I happily cast my first presidential vote for George McGovern in 1972, wrongly thinking that he might have a chance at winning the election but rightly thinking even as the electoral votes were totaled that night that the iceberg that was Watergate would eventually sink the S.S. Nixon, an opinion that my folks tended to greet with skepticism.

In many other cases, it would have been pleasant to sit on that green couch forty years ago tonight and know that I had been proven right (and would continue to be proven right for the next few years as trials went by and books and then more books came out). But the moment seemed too serious that night forty years ago to indulge in any kind of satisfaction about having been prescient. Instead, there was relief that the saga was coming to an end, there was some disgust at the repetition of old tired justifications for unacceptable actions, and there was an odd sense of sorrow.

I disagreed with almost everything Richard Nixon said and did, and his crimes and those committed by his people in his name were too serious for him to remain in office. I felt no sympathy for the man. But I felt that odd sorrow. Why? I’m still not sure.

Maybe it was for those who were duped by the president and his men for so long, which was most of us in the U.S. Maybe it was for the country having been so preoccupied for two years when other issues remained unattended and unresolved. Maybe it was because there was a thought that it didn’t have to turn out the way it did, that one bad choice in the Nixon camp led to another bad choice and then another and another. (If that thought lingered, it wasn’t for long, as I soon came to the conclusion that very little – for good or ill – happened by accident or without forethought in the Nixon White House.)

Whatever its genesis, there was that small sorrow as I watched the president announce his plans to resign. And when the speech was over, Mom and Dad and I went upstairs and went about whatever we did to fill the remainder of an August evening in 1974, me with that bit of sorrow hanging around for some time.

In retrospect, that evening’s address and the actual resignation of the president the next day was the first of three events in a little more than a year’s time that I think closed the door on the era that we call the Sixties. The other two? At the end of April 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and the Vietnam War was over. In September 1975, Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who might have been turned into a radical, was arrested in San Francisco. And we moved on.

And what music from early August 1974 fits the mood that I find myself in while writing this piece? Well, there’s “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” by Bobby “Blue” Bland. Ostensibly written about the absence of a woman, it can be heard as being about the absence of any cherished thing. As I look back to that evening forty years ago tonight, I think the sorrow I felt was because we’d lost something, even if I couldn’t – and still can’t – put a name on it. And even if the words aren’t quite right, Bland’s record sounds like I remember feeling that night.

In the Billboard Hot 100 released two days after my folks and I watched the president announce his resignation, Bland’s plaint was sitting at No. 100. It would move up to No. 91 and to No. 9 on the R&B chart.

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3 Responses to “An Odd Sorrow Recalled”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    I’d taken a break that evening from reviewing new records in the third floor campus radio station at the U of M’s Coffman Memorial Union to head down to the large room on the opposite wing of the first floor that was equipped with a large-screen TV. What better venue to witness the unfolding of that night’s event than the heart of a large university racked by the fallout from five-plus years of Nixon administration policies?

    The packed house erupted in jubilation with the words “I shall resign…” There was no sorrow to be found in this crowd. Only disappointment that the resignation was not effective immediately.

  2. jb says:

    I felt a little sorry for Nixon that night, and years later, knowing what I have learned about him, I still do, a little. Politics and government were all that mattered to him, more than his family, more than anything else in his life. Who among us could watch another person give up all he has and not feel a little bit sorry for them? Although millions thirsted to see him in the dock and on his way to prison, it occurs to me that such punishment couldn’t have been any worse than losing the thing that gave him his identity.

  3. Tim McMullen says:

    Written before his resignation—A little bit of autobiography and history:

    Welcome to Whittier

    I come from the President’s hometown.
    The city fathers were pleased and proud
    When the hometown boy got crowned.
    They used to have these signs
    Hanging from the telephone lines
    Saying, “Welcome to
    The President’s Hometown.”
    Late last night they tore the banners down!

    The high school where
    He spent his days still stands.
    The high school board,
    For his swearing in,
    They sent the high school band.
    They used to have this plaque
    Made of plywood and shellac;
    It wore the words:
    “The President is our Man!”
    This morning found it broken in the can.

    Hometown boy gone bad,
    We gave you all we had.
    You squeezed us dry, and then
    You asked for more.
    Hometown boy gone bad,
    We surely will be glad
    When we throw your lies
    And you right out the door.

    We all knew his every boyhood haunt.
    His relatives who lived in town
    Had a drive-in restaurant
    With two-way intercoms—
    Push a button off or on—
    They’d take your order,
    Ask you what you’d want.
    It seemed like a good idea…
    For a restaurant.

    But in politics
    He tried the same technique:
    All he wanted to do
    Was take a peek.
    Seek out his enemies;
    Make them feel the squeeze.
    They caught him when his
    Watergate sprang a leak.
    No plumbers and no paddles
    Up this creek (up the river);
    Jowl deep and sinking in the creek.

    Hometown boy gone bad,
    We gave you all we had.
    You squeezed us dry, and then
    You asked for more.
    Hometown boy gone bad,
    We surely will be glad
    When we throw your lies and you
    Right out the door.

    I come from the President’s hometown.
    The city fathers were pleased and proud
    When the hometown boy got crowned.
    They used to have these signs
    Hanging from the telephone lines
    Saying, “Welcome to
    The President’s Hometown.”
    Late last night they tore the banners down!
    ©1974 Tim McMullen All Rights Reserved

    http://www.soundclick.com/bands/page_songInfo.cfm?bandID=1239181&songID=11501814

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