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Hullabaloo


Friday, August 08, 2014

 
August 1974: a moment of national maturity

by digby

There's a lot of fascinating history being discussed this week on the 40th anniversary of the Nixon resignation, not the least of which is the great stuff in Rick Perlstein's new book "The Invisible Bridge." But I also enjoyed this memoir from Michael Winship at Moyers.com.  He's a little bit older than I am but he was still pretty young in 1974 when it all came down and was working in the media at the time. (I was still a teenager, but was just as riveted as were most Americans.)   It was, needless to say, very dramatic and for a young person, formative. Politics were seen through the prism of that event for a very long time.

Anyway, his piece is well worth reading if you're interested in this sort of thing. Here's an excerpt:
That summer, we had co-produced with the BBC and CBC a dramatic recreation of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868 (I remember reading All the President’s Men, hot off the press, on the flights to and from Raleigh, NC, where we videotaped). We had just finished our daily coverage of the House Judiciary Committee hearings and I had been the editorial assistant, pulling wire copy, making phone calls, helping however possible.

Suddenly, everything came together in a rush. Monday, August 5, we were making calls to contacts on Capitol Hill, trying to figure out how a trial would work. Later that day, with the release of the smoking gun tape, Nixon said, “I am firmly convinced that the record, in its entirety, does not justify the extreme step of impeachment and removal of a president.” Tuesday and Wednesday, emergency meetings with Republican leadership were held at the White House, with even the most diehard supporters on the judiciary committee finally telling Nixon he had to go. Whatever was going to happen, NPACT made contingency plans for a four-and-a-half hour special that would take up the entire PBS evening schedule.

Thursday, August 8, we knew Nixon would speak to the nation that night. I went to Lafayette Park to tape promos with our White House correspondent. Crowds already were beginning to gather. At 9 pm, we were in the studio, listening to Nixon’s resignation address. Except for his voice it was silent and I thought of what one observer had said more than a century before, during the Senate vote on whether or not to convict Andrew Johnson: “… Such a stillness prevailed that the breathing of the galleries could be heard.”

I got home but it seemed anticlimactic, so I called a girlfriend who had a car and convinced her to drive with me back to Lafayette Park where the celebration was in full swing. For weeks, demonstrators had stood along Pennsylvania Avenue with signs: “Honk if you think he’s guilty.” Motorists had responded enthusiastically, and now the sound of their horns and accompanying cheers was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve at midnight.
I didn't experience euphoria.  I was stunned though. Seeing the most powerful man in the world brought low by his own hubris (and psychic wounds) was an early lesson in human nature. A real life greek tragedy in front of my very eyes.

Perlstein said something very interesting yesterday on MSNBC. He pointed out that all of this was really a very fine moment for America.  The system worked.  The leaders of our nation were able to come to a consensus about something gone very wrong and rectify it.  It began a period of national self-reflection, a reckoning of sorts with the dark side of our power which had been sorely abused in the post war world. It was painful and difficult but as a nation we were facing up to ourselves and attempting to make adjustments in order to live up to our ideals. We were maturing as a country.

And then along came Reagan with his happy horseshit about American goodness and patriotism, giving excuses for everything, assuring the citizens that we could do no wrong. He infantalized us, making it impossible for America to become a truly mature nation able to face its own past and deal responsibly with its immense power around the globe. You know, actually be the "exceptional" country we like to pretend we are today.

This was a big moment, one that could have truly changed the trajectory of our nation in a positive way.  But apparently we just couldn't face up to what we were becoming. And so we turned to a man who made us feel like children again.

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