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Unpleasant Reminder of the Summer of '74

Clinton scandals: The nation is transfixed, supporters are disgusted. Just like Watergate.

September 16, 1998|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page

It was August 1974. I was working in New York City for a publishing house that was part of a larger media conglomerate. Work there had been surreal for the past few weeks because Richard Nixon was in trouble. The Watergate hearings, with all their devastating testimony, had been televised nonstop all summer and now, in the clammy dregs of the season, it looked as if the president of the United States was going to have to resign--or be forced to leave office. A historic first.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation and dread throughout the country and my workplace. Even in that building, which had helped to focus a media laser beam on the president's transgressions and, therefore, was partially responsible for his current predicament, there was an almost tangible sentiment, the same fervent mantra small children repeat when they hear their parents fighting and worry about the possibility of divorce: Please don't let it happen, oh please don't let it happen.

People greeted one another with the latest gossip over morning coffee, the freshest rumor circulating around the Beltway: Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig were talking Nixon into resigning. Pat Nixon told him she would leave him if he didn't listen to her. He'd promised daughter Julie he'd stay to till the bitter end. And on and on. Every day, the papers had fresh revelations, politically tawdry, personally demeaning. The drip, drip of these details helped to wear away at the majesty of the office. The imperial presidency had begun to sound and look much more like the imperious presidency, imperious and hollow.

Reporters who had diligently pursued Watergate stories now openly mocked Nixon: In Texas, when Nixon addressed a conference of editors, Dan Rather stood up to ask a question and got a standing ovation from his peers. After the applause died down, the president chortled tensely: "Are you running for something?" "No sir. Are you?" Rather shot back. More applause. Blood already in the water.

Toward the end, there was breaking news throughout the day. Televisions were brought into the lounge areas of the publisher's floors and kept turned on, so staff could check the progress of what promised to be history in the making. It was not unusual to walk down the hall on the way to a meeting to see several editors, writers and researchers clustered around a set, murmuring about what the latest news flash meant. Nixon supporters (and there were some) seemed resigned, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not even hoping against hope anymore that some last-minute miracle would intervene. Just hoping it would end with some dignity and not ruin their party for good.

A day or so before The Day, I passed a gaggle of editorial people grouped around a set. They were chattering excitedly, but I couldn't hear the TV above their noise, couldn't see the screen beyond them. I passed a workman who was walking down the now-empty corridor: "Is this it?" I asked. "Is he resigning?"

The man turned on me. "Lady, I don't know," he snarled; "all I'm trying to do is fix the goddamned air conditioner."

He was white, probably about the age I am now, in coveralls with a graying crew cut. Probably a law and order supporter. The total ideological opposite of my then-22-year-old self. But despite that, I found myself sympathizing with him: This man was in pain. His leader, the man he'd thought was going to transform the country, turn it from the unacceptable direction in which it had been headed, had let him down. And in the most disgraceful and public way and for something so trivial, so selfish and demeaning. It had to hurt.

Watching Bill Clinton in the last days of summer, after months filled with lies, half-lies and technical obfuscations, having been deluged with a incessant tide of seamy revelations, (and interlaced with self-serving, disingenuous apologies), I find myself thinking more and more often of that air-conditioning repairman. And wondering, if he's still around, whether he's as disgusted today as he was the last time. As disgusted as I am now.

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