“It’s just like 1973!” so many in the nation’s capital marveled this week after President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey.
Yes, the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre vibe is strong here in Washington.
I think I can hear Roberta Flack over at Mr. Henry’s, “Killing Him Softly” with her song. Is that a tuna and Jell-O recipe on my Facebook feed? The beards are so long! I’m wearing flowered pants! Archibald Cox is outpacing Alexander Ovechkin on my Twitter feed. And, yes, the president just fired the man who’s investigating his ties to some scandal. It must be 1973, right?
Well, not quite.
Talking to folks who were here, deep in Washington-gossip-sipping-the-break-room Sanka, dragging on Virginia Slims, right across from the Watergate complex, there is something that’s stopping this nostalgia wave right at the edge of 2017.
“I see similarities between then and now, but I also see fundamental differences,” said Carol Compton, who was a clinical lab chemist in Washington during the Watergate scandal and vividly remembers the break-room conversations of the time.
“I couldn’t even tell you what party most of my friends were affiliated with back then. We were just all, collectively, sad that there was scandal around a president. We talked about how unprecedented it was. That was the discussion,” she said. “There was a united sadness about the whole thing, not Democrats celebrating or Republicans angry. There was a feeling of sadness that it had gotten to this point.”
Washington was a very different place in 1973. Far less polarized. People weren’t tweeting their most mean-spirited thoughts, especially not the president himself.
And although there have always been differences in political philosophy, cross-party friendships were plentiful — and so was common decency.
It was the moderate Republicans, the guys who were disgusted by the scandal, not the man, who were the heroes of Watergate.
That’s the way my retired doctor remembers it.
“The concern that something imminent is going to happen is the same,” said Raymond Scalettar, who not only treated official Washington for decades in his practice near the Watergate but also treated President Richard Nixon himself.
“There’s an aura of confusion and concern. And anxiety that I remember,” Scalettar told me. “We’re going through a weird time now, aren’t we?
In between texting me inspirational quotes from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas, which Scalettar was visiting on one of his many retirement trips, he also recalled the lessons of the Nixon years.
“You cannot help but think,” he said, “that one’s reactions to events may be worse than the action itself.”
Elizabeth Drew, who covered the Watergate scandal for the New Yorker, saw the parallels immediately.
“As the stunning news of Comey’s firing spread through Washington on Tuesday evening, the reactions were similar to those when a previous president fired his chief investigator: astonishment, a kind of ghoulish humor, plus deep unease at a president behaving so far outside of traditional norms,” Drew wrote in Politico magazine.
“The fear that permeated the Washington atmosphere during Watergate hasn’t quite developed, but some of the elements of the story — in particular, a vindictive president seeming out of control — are in place for that to happen as well,” she wrote.
It’s happening on the streets already.
The mood and messages of today’s protests, marches and demonstrations feel pretty spot-on as ’70s reenactments — ubiquitous facial hair and all.
It was a crowd of about 10,000 that marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House on April 27, 1974, demanding impeachment.
“The danger to America is that a dangerous, duplicitous, deceitful man is in the White House,” Rep. Parren James Mitchell (D- Md.) said to a cheering crowd of protesters that day. “We must get rid of him before he destroys this country.”
And then, seven streakers ran past him — two men and five women — wearing nothing but Richard Nixon masks, yelling “No more coverup!”
Okay, so we really don’t have much streaking anymore.
But that wasn’t the only thing that was so different back in Watergate times.
Compton, now a 71-year-old who has re-entered the workforce in the field of adult education, said she has to be careful who she talks to about politics.
“It’s hard now. Everything becomes an argument instead of an exchange of ideas and information,” she said. She’s a bipartisan voter who leans Democrat, but now exists in a break-room culture where she looks over her shoulder and speaks in hushed tones, so she doesn’t incite an argument.
“Back then, we would have these long discussions over lunch. We didn’t always agree with each other. But they were interesting, they were about what was going on,” she said. “It’s sad today. It used to be, somebody had explained their view and I’d say: ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying. Maybe I need to rethink that.’ But today, if you don’t agree, people just think you’re wrong. That’s what I think is different.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s what’s missing. Thank you, Carol.
We don’t need orange jokes and tiny-hand insults. Or partisan attacks in the name of party and a political scoreboard.
We need to recapture the break-room culture of Washington circa 1973.
Just leave the streaking and the tuna and Jell-O behind.
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