Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Remembering The Final Days

I guess my brother and I really turned out differently.

We had the same parents, of course, and we grew up in the same house — but my brother probably has always preferred to build a motorcycle from spare parts while I have always leaned more toward reading and writing.

Like most siblings, we had different interests. Nothing wrong with that. The thing we had in common, the thing we both got from our parents, was an appreciation for creative expression. We expressed our creativity in different ways, that's all. Still do.

There are probably several reasons why that is true, and I'm sure it would make for a fascinating — and, in all likelihood, lengthy — essay, but I only mention it to make the point that I did a lot of reading when I was growing up.

My parents were both teachers, and they believed in reading. They encouraged me to do as much of it as I could so it wasn't unusual for me to read book after book after book during my summer vacations.

It also wasn't unusual for me to read books that were supposedly over my head — or, at least, "beyond my years," as my grandmother often said.

(My grandmother contributed to that, incidentally. She often gave me books that would have been incomprehensible to many of my peers — but I read most of them from cover to cover and got a lot from them.)

My grandmother probably was right — to a certain extent. I did read a lot of things that I really didn't completely understand at the time — but I have re–read them since then, and they made a lot more sense the second time around.

In the summer of 1976, I read a lot of books that probably should have been hard for me to comprehend, starting with Woodward and Bernstein's recently published sequel to "All the President's Men" — which kind of left readers hanging. At the end of that book, President Nixon was telling the nation in early 1974 that "I have no intention ... of walking away from the job the American people elected me to do."

And, at the time, it was hard to see — on the surface and to the untrained eye — how Nixon, who had been tripped up by several untruths in 1973, could possibly be removed from office without a so–called "smoking gun." All that anyone seemed to have against him were the words of one other person and what would be considered circumstantial evidence.

Yet, when Woodward and Bernstein resumed the story in "The Final Days," the emphasis from the start was on the behind–the–scenes efforts to persuade the president and his loyalists that he had to resign — efforts that led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

Like everyone else in America, I had been following the Watergate scandal, even when the topics were beyond my years.

And there had been times (i.e., when the so–called Senate Watergate Committee was questioning witnesses) when the topics clearly fell in that category.

There were also times — when the House Judiciary Committee was considering articles of impeachment against Nixon — when it was hard for me to keep up.

Part of that may have been an overabundance of characters in the story. I knew the names of the major players, of course, but sometimes I got lost in the maze of deputies and aides and lawyers who made up the vast supporting cast.

I came to the conclusion rather early in that process that many of those underlings were like the German soldiers from World War II — the ones who protested after the war ended that they had merely been "following orders" when they executed people in the concentration camps.

Even so, I followed things pretty well — if I do say so myself — and I still understand aspects of the Watergate scandal that people who lived through it never have understood.

I've got to admit, though — I enjoyed reading the inside stuff in "The Final Days" that nobody heard about at the time — how Nixon and Henry Kissinger got on their knees and prayed together in the Oval Office or how an inebriated Nixon wandered the halls of the White House, carrying on conversations with the portraits on the walls.

Those excerpts had been frequently published in the weeks before I finally got a copy of "The Final Days," and I was eager to read them for myself.

(I will never forget a wickedly funny Saturday Night Live parody of the book in which Nixon asked a portrait of Lincoln, "Why are they doing this to me, Abe?" and the portrait replied, "Because you're such a dip, Dick.")

I don't remember how I acquired my hardback copy of "The Final Days" — somebody must have given it to me because I hadn't started working in the summers yet and, even when I did, it probably would have taken me a day or two to earn enough take–home pay to purchase it on my own.

But I've still got that copy. The once–white cover has yellowed with age, and the dust on it betrays how long it has been since I read it, but it means a lot to me.

It took on even more value for me when, while I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, co–author Carl Bernstein came to campus. I went to hear him — with my copy of "The Final Days" in hand — and I got Bernstein to sign it after his lecture.

(I'm not usually an autograph hound — but I make an exception whenever I have an opportunity to meet a world–class journalist.)

Ultimately, I felt the Watergate story was a story of the triumph of the American system over an individual's paranoia and unquenchable thirst for power.

"The Final Days" completed the story that was started in "All the President's Men."