My Nixon Years

By

40 years ago I saw my father and grandmother argue. It was the first and only time, as far as I know. My father had been his mother’s favorite child—a fact acknowledged with some bitterness by his siblings, though proudly by him. I loved them both. It was the summer of 1974, August 9th. We were all up at our cabin in northern Michigan. I don’t know what my two brothers were doing—probably swimming in the clear lake just steps away—but Dad and I were watching the small black-and-white TV. We were there to see Nixon leave Washington. As the helicopter lifted off, we cheered—we may have high-fived. I was 9; he was 36. It was something we shared, hating Nixon. When Dad and I walked out to the cabin’s sun-dappled back porch, still elated, we saw my grandmother in tears (quiet, reserved tears, as she was a quiet, reserved woman, but tears nonetheless). She didn’t like Nixon, either, she reminded us, but she was deeply sad for the country nonetheless. She had seen a lot of presidents, but she had never seen this. My father’s glee offended her. I can only assume she forgave me mine (she forgave children everything).

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I was 6 when, on June 17, 1972, a security guard alerted police of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC. In the next two months, I turned 7 and my family moved from Kansas to Massachusetts, so my father, a history professor, could spend a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. We rented out our house and moved into one recently vacated by some Harvard faculty member in the nearby suburb of Arlington. Unlike our recently built house in Kansas, where every bedroom was resolutely square, all of our rooms in the Arlington house were odd shapes. Mine was long and narrow, less a bedroom than a study, with someone else’s books on the shelves and a twin-sized daybed along one wall. I used to lie in bed and pick my nose, then wipe my boogers on the wall just below the bed’s surface. (Years later, I realize that someone had to have found that line of boogers and cleaned it.) It took me having my own kids to realize that while all kids are disgusting in some way, often involving boogers, they’re still lovable. I didn’t feel lovable then.

family photoWhile we were living in Arlington, my parents’ marriage began to fall apart. They got through the fall—Nixon’s re-election in early November, which disgusted me, felt somewhat mitigated by our living in Massachusetts, the only state, along with DC, that went for McGovern. They made it through Thanksgiving, when all of us traveled to the Berkshires to spend the holiday with my great aunt Catharine and great uncle Ran, along with a lot of second cousins I never saw again until Aunt Catharine’s funeral in 1994. They went away to a history convention in Florida, leaving all three of us with family friends, an older couple whose children were mostly grown (the youngest few were in boarding school). The family’s vicious little dog kept trying to bite my little brother. Later, I figured that Florida weekend was a last-ditch attempt to work something out. Uncle Ran died a little bit later, and I attended his funeral despite trying to run away. I was forced to stand next to Aunt Catharine in the church—I’m her namesake and she had no children—and she clenched my shoulder and wept loudly, rocking as if in physical pain.

When my parents split up that winter, we kids spent a lot of time with no grownups around.  Another family friend, Pam, moved into the house for a while to keep things sane. I didn’t see a lot of my mother—one time I opened her bedroom door and she was lying in her bed, crying. She raised herself up on her elbows and looked at me, still crying. I shut the door and left. I had no idea then what to do with adult pain. I still don’t.

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That school year was the best I ever had. The school was experimental in nature, and it doesn’t exist anymore. My second grade teacher, Miss Atkinson, was English. She encouraged me to write stories, and every time I finished one we would look together at a map of the world’s animals, choosing a new protagonist. All my stories had animals for characters, and all of them had to do with stopping fights, making peace, being honest. One was about finding a father (then surviving a war—it was a busy story). My friends from the neighborhood went to the same school. My two closest friends, a boy and a girl, joined with me and my little brother in what we called “the After School Sex Club.” We would take our clothes off and jump around naked on the bed in my room. Then we would pee in a jar I hid in my closet. When Pam found it, I lied.

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After they split up, my father moved into a boarding house near Harvard and we stayed in Arlington. It was a heady time to be in Cambridge, and I loved visiting Dad in his boarding house. He would buy me an ice cream cone and we would walk across Harvard Yard. Once I gave the little pointy end of my cone, with a tiny bit of ice cream still in it, to a squirrel, who took it with tiny, scratchy paws. It was like I was meeting one of my friends from Beatrix Potter. Another time, Dad was walking across the Yard alone and saw Archibald Cox walking toward him. It was spring of 1973, and Cox had just taken a leave from Harvard Law to act as special prosecutor to the Watergate Committee; he was trying to get Nixon to turn over the tapes recorded in his office. As their paths crossed, Dad saluted and said, “stick it to ‘em.” Cox nodded in response. A month later, Nixon had Cox fired in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

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We moved back to Kansas, where I went back to my old school for third grade. I immediately got in trouble for having learned cursive before its mandatory introduction, and then in further trouble for scratching “Impeach Nixon” onto the wall of a bathroom stall with my house key. We kids lived with our mother in the house we’d always lived in. My father had bought a small house near campus, in a neighborhood full of students. He rented an apartment on the second floor of his house to a hippie woman. When her cat had kittens, I begged and was able to take one. We spent all day Sunday with Dad, in addition to a one-on-one weeknight dinner date or sleepover. Sundays were usually bowling, followed by steak and 60 Minutes. The weeknights I had alone with him, we would go to the local Big Boy restaurant or Long John Silver’s, a schlocky seafood place. We’d watch Walter Cronkite together and talk about what had happened in the Watergate trial.

Watergate NixonThe next summer, when Nixon resigned, I felt let down and a little cheated. I was happy he had left, but angry he hadn’t had to face the impeachment he so richly deserved. When Ford pardoned him, I was outraged. My father seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps because he was a history professor, he faced this kind of thing with more equanimity than I could muster. I still wanted things to be fair. I felt angry a lot of the time. As I got older and the whole issue of popularity loomed in later grade school, I understood that I wasn’t popular and likely never would be. I didn’t smear boogers on walls anymore, but it seemed as if people knew I was the kind of person who had.

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I’ve grown up over the past 40 years. I’ve shed most of the worry I once had about being unlikeable. As far as Nixon goes, I can see my grandmother’s point of view now—she mourned the passing of a world in which it meant something great to be president (and by extension, to be American). I can also see my father’s—he knew that American history has never been a straight line, that progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that, as Martin Luther King always said, though the moral arc is long, it bends toward justice. Weirdly, though, I find myself understanding Nixon differently, although it makes me uncomfortable to say so. Like me, he was smart and competitive but deeply insecure, seemingly always worried about being unliked and unlikeable. Now, I hate his politics and his corruption, his cynical, paranoid disrespect for the idea of democracy. Then, I think I hated him mostly because he was repulsive, and I can’t help remembering how much I felt the same about myself back then. I watched the documentary “Our Nixon” the other day. It features home movie footage of Nixon, shot by aides Haldeman, Erlichman, and Dwight Chapin, along with lots of those tape recordings. In his phone calls to Haldeman, Nixon is forever pushing Haldeman for proof that he’s respected, approved of, supported. You can hear the desperation in his voice. There’s something about those phone calls—in a lot of them, Nixon sounds drunk—that feels so pathetic and also so familiar.

Even though he was an adult in the 1970s, when I was a child, he seemed just as confused as I was by the changing social structure. I wished, when I was 7, for things to be comprehensible, controllable; I wonder if he felt the same way. Those of us who were children in those years no doubt all have our own memories of Watergate, Vietnam, all the rest of it. Not everyone’s parents split up—but more did than in any previous decade. Even those who stayed together, if my friends’ parents were any indication, experienced the decade as one of disruption, confusion. For me, although the decade would also give us disco and Norman Lear sitcoms and my absolute favorite bell-bottomed striped green pantsuit, the 70s were all about Nixon—that awkward liar, sweaty and shifty-eyed, his face full of an anger I recognize now, the fury of someone who always felt misunderstood, even when he wasn’t. Like the monsters I sometimes thought I saw in my bedroom window at night, he was just a reflection.

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Family photo provided by Kate Tuttle.


Kate Tuttle is a book critic for the Boston Globe. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. She lives in Decatur, Georgia. More from this author →