‘Richard Nixon retired very happily:’ What if Watergate hadn’t happened (From the archives)

June 11, 2012

This article was first published June 7, 1992.

It was early morning on June 17, 1972. Security guard Frank Wills paused momentarily during his rounds of the Watergate complex, glanced briefly at a door to the second basement level, and continued amiably on his way. This is because no electrical tape had been applied to the door lock, because no burglars were up on the sixth floor replacing the bug on a telephone.

What if?

What if Watergate hadn’t happened?

“Deep Throat” is only a dirty movie. Daniel Ellsberg is still seeing the same psychiatrist. Robert Bork sits on the Supreme Court, appointed in 1976, because he never sacked Archibald Cox, because Archibald Cox never left Harvard to become a special prosecutor, because there was nothing to prosecute, specially.

Elizabeth Taylor is dead. She was never saved from drugs and booze and overeating by the Betty Ford Center, because the Betty Ford Center does not exist, because Betty Ford remained a perfectly happy golf widow in Grand Rapids, Mich., who sometimes acted a little silly at Christmas parties.

Twenty-two men did not go to jail. The Ethics in Government Act was never written — nor passed — and so even more men did not go to jail. The 94th Congress didn’t include 75 newly elected, ethically empowered Democrats, including Gary Hart.

The Vietnam War draft dodgers were stuck in Canada, without Jimmy Carter to bail them out. Fifteen years later, the hippest city in the Western Hemisphere, birthplace of a cultural renaissance unknown since the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, is Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Without Carter’s $ 1.5 billion loaner, Chrysler went belly up. The 1968 Dodge Dart immediately became a collectible, and was displayed in the design wing of MOMA. Lee Iacocca became a Subaru executive. Larry Flynt was never saved by Ruth Carter Stapleton. He remained a disgusting pig.

Edmund Morris was able to finish the second installment of his Theodore Roosevelt biography because he never got tied up doing Ronald Reagan, since Ronald Reagan, after an unsuccessful run at the presidency in 1976, quit politics. He was wholly satisfied that a good conservative — Spiro T. Agnew — had finally made it into the White House. Reagan resumed a successful career in television, and in 1980 accepted the part of Blake Carrington on “Dynasty.” He dyed his hair gray.

Without a presidency to cement their marriage, Ron and Nancy Reagan sadly drifted apart. At a black-tie benefit for menstrual cramps, Nancy was introduced to the recently separated hotelier Harry Helmsley. They were married two months later.

A generation of talented young people, over-educated and under-experienced, never took to sorting mail and answering phones at newspapers, trying to become famous reporters like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Instead, they became insurance actuaries, dentists and performance artists.

And the president’s men?

Charles Colson, unstained by any hugely public sinning, returned to the Marines and never got a chance to host “The 700 Club” with Pat Robertson. John Mitchell did host a show, though, called “Washington Windbags,” with John McLaughlin. It was canceled after 13 weeks due to poor ratings, and neither man was seen on television again.

President Agnew’s chronic immorality went unnoticed until a few months after he was sworn into office, when the 38th president of the United States — dressed in a ski mask and Bermuda shorts — was apprehended robbing a Gaithersburg 7-Eleven.

Agnew was impeached. Agnew was imprisoned. The country was torn apart. The country was sad and bitter. The country became mistrustful of politicians.

The new president, Nelson Rockefeller, made everybody feel a little bit better, until he was found dead one morning, with his shoes on the wrong feet.

Woodward and Bernstein — what of them?

Alas, poor Bernstein. Although unruined by success, he was fired by The Washington Post for abusing rental car privileges. He became a performance artist, and was denied funding by the NEA for his masterwork titled “[expletive].”

He met Nora Ephron, but she didn’t find him particularly attractive. In 1975 she married Tony Kornheiser.

Discouraged by a lackluster career, Bob Woodward left journalism for dental school and made a name for himself in gingivitis research. Without him, the famed 75,000-inch Washington Post Dan Quayle profile never got written. Western civilization collapsed.

Jason Robards, meanwhile, sank deeper and deeper into dinner theater obscurity, his acting career never revived by having the great fortune to play the charismatic Benjamin C. Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post. The real Bradlee? He spent the remainder of his life wishing he were as famous as his wife, Sally Quinn.

Katharine Graham thrived as publisher of the newspaper, then chairman of The Washington Post Co., though without a certain cachet. From time to time, she was confused with Martha Graham, the dancer.

After an unsuccessful campaign for president, Jimmy Carter joined the Peace Corps in 1977 and was sent to Iran and taken hostage along with 62 other Americans. They were released immediately. Rockefeller just paid cash. ABC’s show “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage” was never broadcast. Ted Koppel, the ABC diplomatic correspondent, became the anchor of WJLA. People made fun of his hair.

Billy Carter, the troubled brother of the former governor of Georgia, marketed a brand of weak American beer called Billy Beer. Twenty years later, an unopened six-pack of Billy Beer, undented and in mint condition, is worth $ 1.26.

Frank Sinatra, who had been best friend to President John F. Kennedy, never got a chance to be the best friend of President Reagan. Instead, Sinatra became best friend to presidents Agnew, Rockefeller, Weicker and Haldeman.

Bebe Rebozo joined the circus as a clown, performing under the stage name “Bozo Rebebo.”

Richard Nixon retired very happily to San Clemente. His wit and grace and intelligence and charm intact, his heart and soul content, he and Pat enjoyed a time of peace and relaxation until he died nine days later, instead of being kept alive for decades by revenge fantasies.

The Watergate apartment and hotel complex, long maligned as an eyesore, was torn down without much fanfare. It was falling apart anyway.

In its place?

The Nixon Memorial, designed by postmodern architect Michael Graves. Above the stuffed body of Checkers, there was a pagoda roof with a golden bowling ball on top. In bas-relief, the icons of the Nixon presidency: a cloth coat, a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup, a pair of chopsticks, a fireplace that burns all year.

And forevermore, schoolchildren will be made to memorize the date June 17, pivotal in American history: the anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill.

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