This week brings the tenth anniversary of the Watergate burglary, and last week the major newsweeklies duly saluted the marvel. I, for one, was taken aback by the fuss. This week also brings the tenth anniversary of renowned entomologist Glen F. Birkhalter's mission to Moscow where, under the auspices of the Orkin Exterminating Company, he was to rid the American Embassy of Soviet cockroaches.
It also brings the tenth anniversary of a rather epic nocturnal brawl in front of 1508 Flatbush Ave., the Brooklyn campaign headquarters of Elizabeth Holtzman. Six drunks took on her local Machiavels, sending three of them to King's County Hospital. No mention of these events has appeared in the newsweeklies or anyplace else; and Birkhalter had traveled at company expense "to help bring peace of mind" to our embassy's staff.
The newsweeklies were dutiful about informing us of the whereabouts of the Watergate defendants and even of some, like Maurice Stans, who had nothing to do with Watergate whatsoever. Well, I am more curious about the present condition of those six drunks from the War for 1508 Flatbush Ave. Are they still in their cups? Were they out to deny the solon Holtzman usufruct of her office space? Have they moved on to high positions in government or at one of the giant corporations? My guess is that a lot of my fellow Americans would find news of these nocturnal patriots equally as engrossing as the present condition of the Watergate rascals.
According to Time, several of them have become gentlemen of letters. Two are involved in Christian endeavor. Others are in retirement, and some prosper on the campus lecture circuit. One is obviously non compos mentis-- what a hot commodity he might be on the campus circuit; doubtless tenured positions would await him: head of Watergate Studies at Berkeley, Annenberg Fellow in Telecommunications, university faculties abound with such weird appointments. Taking one thing with another I doubt the Watergate rascals fared worse than any other cross section of American politicians. Certainly they fared no worse than their congressional opponents.
After the resignation of Richard Nixon I used to keep meticulous records of the destinies of his opponents. In surprising numbers they met with unenviable ends. By late 1979 nearly 50 of them had been indicted, convicted or forced to lie low. Some simply wobbled off and died. After 1979, I could no longer keep count of the carnage but came to the conclusion that Richard Nixon's powers were far more diabolical than his opponents had imagined. To cross him was to put oneself under the power of some supernatural hangman. Review the historical record; his enemies have come to tragic ends far more often than his friends whose trips to the hoosegow are so celebrated.
Do last week's journalistic orgies mean that we are now going to commemorate the anniversaries of every dramatic moment in the 26-month Watergate Spectacular? Any nation that can take pleasure in such trashy displays as "The Dukes of Hazzard" and the "Phil Donahue Show" probably contains enough lunkheads to relish yet more Watergate drivel, and certainly my brethren in the media will look forward to this sort of insane pageantry. It was Watergate that allowed them to raise themselves to their bogus eminence as democracy's priesthood. Yet Watergate as celebrated today is a mere folk tale.
Its preeminent myth is that Watergate was the consequence of the high moralism animating American political life. Even the cynical Europeans believe this myth, and they snicker at us for it. Actually the pack that lit out after the American president was not animated by moralism at all. It wanted Nixon's hide. Doubtless many knew what we all know now, namely: that dirty tricks, abuse of power, exploiting indelicate political intelligence and cover-ups have in varying degrees been features of American political life, going back to the time of FDR at least.
Such foul behavior is characteristic of highly politicized time, and the times have been highly politicized for most of the past four decades. Moreover, the politicization will continue so long as government remains a lush source of influence and boodle. The Watergate shenanigans were part of the informal morality of American politics. Arguably the morality was practiced more broadly than during earlier administrations, but the more I learn about the Johnson administration I begin to doubt even this. Many of those who broke with the informal morality of American politics, pretending it never existed, were sufficiently cynical to rank with any European.
But it is said that many salutary reforms came with Watergate. Those of us who have watched the parade of chislers move from government into the calaboose in a steady and tawdry parade since Watergate are not convinced. Some of us know that the major theme of Henry Kissinger's recent memoir is sound. The Watergate spectacle weakened the American presidency. The Paris agreement was undone, and the Soviets could spring to life in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Afghanistan and Poland. Who commemorates these anniversaries?