Editor’s Note: The following is a guest essay and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Next Avenue.
I sat cross-legged on the living room floor staring at the 19-inch wood-framed television as Richard Nixon climbed aboard the presidential helicopter. He turned to face the crowd, raised both arms in a V and made his iconic hand gesture — double peace signs.
Earlier that day, August 9, 1974, Nixon had resigned the office of president.
My 10th birthday was the next day, a Saturday, and my extended family had gathered to celebrate the night before at the Jersey shore, where we had rented a house for a week. On most nights, my big Italian family talked nonstop, but on this night, we were as silent as if we were attending Sunday mass.
The children, who ranged in age from 3 to 17, watched the television because we were told that “history was being made.” (In retrospect, I realize that we were watching the recap on the evening news). Nonetheless, my family — Republicans, every one of them — stared as their president whirled away into the empty, smoke-colored sky and an after-life of obscurity and shame.
I didn’t care that the institution of the presidency had been demeaned; I was upset because this was supposed to be my birthday party! I remember it as the night I was upstaged by Richard Nixon, and I resented him and remained angry with my family for longer than I care to admit.
An Unsettling Time in (My) History
Between the grown-up language like “impeach,” “resign” and “cover-up,” and the dramatic and somber images on TV, it was confusing for a 10 year old.
I could tell that it was also unsettling for the adults, who understood that we were witnessing the last hours of a presidency, an event that would change the country collectively.
Back then, time passed slowly, and I was part of a generation accustomed to delayed gratification. We waited to use the telephone that all six of us shared, we waited in line for movie tickets and we waited for The Brady Bunch every Friday night at 8 p.m. But mostly we waited for Christmas and birthdays.
In my young mind, double digits were a big deal, and my 10th birthday was finally here. Yet all of the adults — my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — seemed to have forgotten why we were assembled. Sure, cake was served, and they sang Happy Birthday, but the conversation did not center on my day, or my year or my gifts.
Four decades have passed, and I have celebrated many memorable birthdays, but I cannot picture any as vividly as that day. The story I have told over and over is that Richard Nixon ruined my birthday. I was a girl who knew how to hold a grudge (I still do).
Since then, I have lived through many monumental national tragedies, and when iconic events occur, I watch and read the news nonstop. One of those nights occurred in April 1994, when I learned of Nixon’s death. I was watching the 11 o’clock news in my New York apartment when I heard that Nixon had died at a local hospital, 15 blocks away. I thought about walking to the hospital to watch yet another spectacle, but the fog was so dense it seemed eerie, even fake.
Instead, I stood on my sofa-sized balcony and looked south over the city, and thought, once again, about my 10th birthday, 20 years prior. The visual that remains with me is the juxtaposition of Nixon’s ascent as he was lifted into the sky, and the descent, or fall from grace that would occur next. I had felt this odd kinship with this man for two decades because one of my milestones overlapped with his, and now he was gone.
The Nixon Resignation: A Helluva Story
Why do I dwell on that day, and why do I still tell this story so often? (If my children ever face the question on a test, or they become contestants on a game show like Jeopardy, they’ll answer the question readily: What day did Richard Nixon resign the presidency?)
Maybe it’s because I became a journalist and I appreciate that Watergate and its aftermath made for a helluva story: lying, cheating, stealing, betrayal and of course, the cover-up. The only thing missing from this made-for-prime-time scandal was sex.
Actually, I think I remain fixated on that day and have stayed fascinated with Richard Nixon over the years because he was a man who held so much promise, yet is remembered not for what he created or achieved, but for what he destroyed — himself included.
It’s a trajectory that I have mulled regarding my own life choices and long-harbored resentments. As someone who is skeptical and at times, suspicious, I have wondered what it would take for my life to devolve into a Nixonesque tragedy. At the same time, I am reminded of what Nixon told his staff in his White House farewell: “Always remember: Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
Nixon was a complicated, tortured man, but the message for children and adults of any age can still be summed up that way, and it is one I have carried with me. I have thought of Nixon many times since the last presidential election in November, and it occurs to me that the uneasiness many Americans feel as they watch TV in disbelief and even disgust as daily events unfold is not new to those of us who were around to witness Nixon’s demise.
This mixture of angst and anger, disappointment and despair, is probably a lot like what my parents were feeling on that August night in 1974.
Not surprisingly, I have become the type of mother who sits her kids in front of the TV, albeit the large, flat-screen version, and says: “Watch this — history is being made.”
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