My Summer of Nixon and Watergate
Life in The Swamp
As I hinted in my previous article about beating the draft, I took a flyer off a bulletin board at school about “summer internships in the Federal Government.” I sent in the form, and thought no more about it. What were the chances?
I was getting my B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science (CS) in June, and I’d had lots of programming experiences, even some of it for money, if you count helping out on a beginning CS course. My Dad thought that a summer job with his employer, Swift & Co., the meat packing giant of Chicago, would be just great for all concerned. He contacted the head of the computer department, who was less than enthused about having a kid work for the summer. But Dad badgered him relentlessly.
Mr. Executive finally called me during the spring semester and interviewed me over the phone. I told him the courses I’d had, and he was duly impressed that I knew what “virtual memory” was, and I could program in assembler. I didn’t know COBOL, though, since no one studied that in school then. I’m sure that counted against me. How much could I possibly accomplish in ten weeks?
I didn’t hear any more from him for the rest of the semester. School ended, and I was scheduled to start at Swift on a Monday. Dad was visibly incensed at Mr. Executive’s lack of enthusiasm for me. “Here’s a smart kid just starting his career, and you have a chance to get in on the ground floor with him!” he ranted.
On the Friday before, I got a call from the Feds! They suddenly had an opening and they wanted to offer it to me! I was unsure what to do, but it sounded like a lot more fun than working in Swift’s MIS department with a guy who didn’t want me.
I called Dad, expecting a lecture about keeping your commitments. I was shocked when he told me to take it! “I’m going to enjoy telling that guy you’re not coming!” he said.
If you’ve ever worked for a large organization, you’re probably imagining some kind of relocation package for summer interns? Free plane ticket, hotel vouchers, movers coming to my house, etc.?
No on all those. For me, it was “Be here on Monday morning.” The next day, June 17, 1972, I set out for D.C. in the car Dad had bought me as a graduation present, a used 1969 Chevy Chevelle (not this exact car but same color):
Mine wasn’t quite as nice looking, though. It used a quart of oil about every 80 miles. I used to buy oil in bulk, the 10 quart cans. I don’t remember the mileage; maybe 12 miles per gallon?
I set off towards Indianapolis on the morning of the 17th. At the on-ramp to highway 70 going east, I stopped and picked up a hitchhiker standing there with a sign “Washington.” People did that in those days. Those stories about the psychotic hitchhiker who robs and murders people were certainly out there, but you had lots of counter examples of nice people. I did it myself, sometimes, hitching home from the supermarket when I was in college, since I didn’t own a car then.
My rider that day, Rick, was a medical student at UCLA, going home for the summer. He didn’t mind stopping every 80 miles or so to pour more oil into the car, or if he did, he didn’t say anything. He also shared the driving.
We got to his house in Maclean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of D.C. where some of the Kennedys lived. His father was a Naval admiral. This was not some dirtbag I’d picked up.
Conversation with his family was awkward for me, and probably for them. They put me up for the night, I went to bed early, and I left as soon as I could the next morning.
I bought a copy of the Washington Post, and saw :
You can see, over on the left, “5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here.” Here’s an expanded view of just that story, which you can see was not the lead story that day. (If you thought Woodward & Bernstein were on this story from the very beginning, think again.)
The story went on to give the backgrounds of the men who were arrested, and details of how they were arrested (they had taped the doors leading to the stairwell to prevent them from locking, and a security guard Frank Wills discovered the tape and called the police).
It was interesting, of course, but this story was just the bare facts. I had no idea what to make of it. It was a Sunday, and there was no 24-7 news cycle like there is now. I laid it aside, and found a motel for Sunday night. On Monday morning I showed up at the Health, Education, and Welfare building as required:
Our building was at the end of the National Mall near Capitol Hill. My division of H.E.W. (which is now called Health and Human Services) was called S.R.S., for Social and Rehabilitation Services. Within that, I was to be an intern in the Research division. The word “intern” has a dubious reputation since Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, and the word “unpaid” is often prepended to it, but I was a GS-5. I got paid.
Finding a Place to Stay
My HR representative, Buddy, took me to his office and asked if I had a place to stay for the summer. I did not. He had a book of listings of federal employees with rooms to rent for the summer. We called a few, and one was an H.E.W. employee, Richard, who lived with his wife in the Northwest part of D.C., near the National Zoo. I could have the entire basement of their house! They had a little refrigerator and hotplate in the laundry room for cooking. Perfect, for a summer at least.
I arranged to stay there from Tuesday on. I spent the night at Buddy’s apartment, and then on Tuesday I moved up to Richard’s house, on Newark Ave. No TV, but I was all set!
Working in the Belly of the Beast
My boss at work was Herb. I was in an office with six desks, and the only other person I can remember is Henrietta. The offices and the hallways were as grey and featureless as the outside of the building. Our division’s job was to collect statistics on three Federal programs: Aid to the Blind (AB), Old Age Assistance (OAA), and Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (APTD). My job was to help out, basically to formulate and submit the cross-tabulation jobs to the big computer and pick up the output.
The computer jobs were all punched card decks, so I’d create a card with the correct codes for whatever we were doing (a cross tab of OAA recipients by state, AB recipients by age, whatever) and go down and hand the card deck to the operator, and then later in the day, pick up the output. Nowadays, of course, you could just do this in Excel. I have no idea who used all this output or what they did with it.
This was not a hard job. Let’s just say I didn’t go home each day with work stress. I think I wrote a few short programs during the summer, but I can’t recall what they did.
A Summer Sinecure for the Connected
The intern program was a Federal boondoggle. Most of the jobs went to kids who were connected somehow: their parents were Congressmen or high-level bureaucrats. Apparently in my case, the connected kid who was supposed to get my job backed out at the last minute, so they were forced to go through the official process. I didn’t have any connections in the government, of course.
Interns were only supposed to work 35 hours a week, and there were lots of “enrichment” programs for us. Most of them were educational, if you considered hearing a powerful person speak “educational.” I did, actually. I went to all of them. I loved seeing famous people up close, and many of these people became much more famous as the Watergate scandal metastasized.
If Richard Nixon is just a page in the history books for you, let me just summarize: he was like Trump, divided by 100. The “100” is because politics was not so all-consuming back then.
Everyone hated Nixon, "everyone” being people with a degree, in college, in D.C., and all of the news media. The saying used to be, “When you say ‘Nixon, that asshole’, you just said the same thing twice.”
While for Trump the question was “How did HE ever become President?” for Nixon it was all too clear: he’d been on the national stage since 1952 when Eisenhower chose him as running mate, and even before that in the Communist-hunting Congressional hearings. He’d already lost to Kennedy in 1960, and again to Pat Brown for California governor in 1962. After that loss, he gave what he said was his last press conference. He refused to go away, though, and now he was President.
In June, 1972, he looked unassailable. He’d gone to China, he’d gone to Russia, and the Democrats were destroying themselves in a delayed reaction to 1968. In 1968, the Democratic party machine had “stolen” the nomination from Bobby Kennedy and then his heir, George McGovern. This time that was not going to happen.
In our enrichment, we saw L. Patrick Gray, who was Acting Director of the FBI and later played a small part in the scandal
And Elliott Richardson, who was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare at the time. He served as Attorney General later, and resigned rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox as Nixon ordered (this was known as the Saturday Night Massacre).
… and then there was Bella Abzug
who, at the time, was a Congressperson from New York and a very high profile feminist. She lost (narrowly) the Democratic primary for Senate to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and was never elected to any office again.
Best of all, we went to the State Department to see Henry Kissinger. At the time, he was not the official Secretary of State, but he was Nixon’s man, and he had gone to China and met Mao! That made almost the most interesting man alive
We saw him in the giant State Department auditorium, which was so full that I had to sit on the steps at the back. Kissinger was witty and gracious as always. I remember him saying that when you’re out of office, you spend your time reading, thinking, and building up intellectual capital, and then when you get into office, you spend that capital. There’s no time for any more thinking, so eventually you run out of ideas and just react.
Then he paused for comic effect and observed that he didn’t say how long this process takes, so we shouldn’t assume he was there already.
Once I was on the Connecticut Avenue bus, reading a story in the Post on how Kissinger had been involved in Vietnam peace negotiations even before Nixon took office. The guy on the seat next to me asked what I thought of it. I observed that it was interesting, and he said, “I wrote it!” It was Don Oberdorfer (RIP), whose career I’d occasionally follow for years afterwards. One of those “only in D.C.” moments.
Interns had a sweet deal, and that’s why connected adults usually got that deal for their kids. We were still supposed to work 35 hours a week, and I attempted to do my job. I got to know the other people in the Research unit, including Herb’s boss Wes. Wes liked me, and several times he tried to get me to stay with H.E.W. instead of going to graduate school.
I had very little idea what they all did, exactly, but everyone knew everyone else’s GS level. As a 5, I was at the bottom of the pecking order. Herb was a 13, I knew that. Wes was a 17, I think.
Herb also lived in Northwest further up Connecticut Avenue, almost in Chevy Chase. He immediately seized on the idea of carpooling with me, so we sometimes rode into work together. He was a funny guy from New York who scuba dived, and he invited me to a party at his condo once.
Herb told me all the ins and outs of the Civil Service. The Social Security Administration was terrible, while the National Institutes of Health was the premier place to work, according to Herb. I had no particular interest in joining the Civil Service, but I filed that information away.
Washington was a company town, where The Company was the Federal Government, just like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were collectively The Company in Detroit. More precisely, politics was the town’s industry. Everyone in D.C. lived it. Thus, Watergate was a common topic of conversation there long before the rest of the country had even heard of it.
Watergate News Trickles Out
On the day I started, June 19, the very first Woodward and Bernstein story appeared in the Post. From that day on, those two owned the Watergate story, and they’re still in the news in 2022, usually with a parenthetical note tying them together. Since then, “-gate” has been the obligatory suffix for every political scandal, and every junior journalist dreams of breaking the big story that brings down a President. They were portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the movie All the President’s Men.
Woodward has used his incredible access to Washington insiders to write a series of books about almost every political story since then. Bernstein has also written books, and had a tabloid-worthy personal life, being married for four years to Nora Ephron, who wrote a bestselling book Heartburn inspired in part by his infidelity. Heartburn became a movie, starring Meryl Streep. How many journalists get to have both Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson play them on the screen?
James McCord, one of the men arrested at the Watergate, was the salaried security coordinator for the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). John N. Mitchell, the head of CRP, who looked nothing at all like Sean Penn:
denied that McCord was working for CRP, and Republican National Committee chairman Bob Dole also condemned the bugging attempt.
D.C. residents strongly suspected that there was more to it. But Nixon had just gone to China and the Democrats were on the verge of nominating George McGovern, who looked like a guaranteed loser. Nixon seemed unbeatable. We were sure he would crush the story and everyone associated with it, and it would be forgotten. How could that not happen? He was the most powerful man in the Free World.
In my office, Henrietta was what we’d call a “conspiracy theorist.” In this case, there really was a conspiracy. Attorney General Mitchell eventually served 19 months in a Federal prison for his role in it. But at the time, it was only a dark suspicion. She was a New Yorker who’d seen it all, and she was certain that Nixon was in it up to his eyebrows. But at the time she really had nothing to go on except her cynicism. Herb and I agreed with her, but we didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about it.
Democrats Form the Circular Firing Squad
There was a lot of politics we could talk about besides Watergate, which in any case wasn’t even a bona fide scandal yet.
The Democratic Party was still in recovery from the disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was nominated,
despite not having entered any primaries, because he was the choice of the machine politicians, the face of whom was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. He’s shown here yelling something unprintable at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who was nominating Sen. George McGovern:
They were determined not to reprise that in 1972. McGovern had chaired a commission to “reform” the process, and then he decided to run for President himself.
Many city machine and organized labor-linked delegations were denied seating at the convention. The platform adopted many planks that still resonate today, including feminism and gay rights.
Recall that Roe v. Wade had not happened yet. The Party failed to add a plank supporting abortion, and Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem declined to make an issue of it. Despite that, an anonymous Democrat (rumored to be Thomas Eagleton, the eventual V.P. nominee) characterized McGovern’s campaign as “acid, amnesty [for draft dodgers], and abortion.” McGovern denied being for federally mandated abortion rights, preferring to leave it to the states.
Being a left-wing college student at the time, I had gone to Wisconsin to campaign for McGovern in the presidential primary there. This gave me major credibility in D.C. circles. The volunteers slept on the floor of someone I’d actually heard of, former football star Bob Timberlake. Bob had become an ordained minister after his football career. I wanted to fly to California to campaign for McGovern there, too, but my math professor refused to let me take the final exam early.
Herb, Henrietta, and I followed the convention closely, and it proved to be an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats. McGovern ended up giving his acceptance speech at 2:48 am, when nearly everyone, including me, had gone to bed. He picked a nearly unknown Senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton, as his running mate
As bad as the convention had been, things got even worse. After a couple weeks, it came out that Eagleton had sought psychiatric help for depression, including electroshock therapy. Henrietta thought this was no big deal and McGovern would weather this storm. Herb and I were not so sure.
At first McGovern supported Eagleton, using a phrase that could only be sarcastic after that, “I’m behind him 1,000%.” Then he accepted Eagleton’s withdrawal as nominee. This was unexplored territory. What could they do, have another convention?
Finally the Democratic National Committee, a much smaller group than the convention delegates, met in the Shoreham Hotel, which Herb and I drove past every day. Sargent Shriver, a part of the Kennedy family by marriage, was the new nominee, or maybe “sacrificial lamb” was the better term
At almost the same time as the Eagleton - Shriver fiasco, Woodward and Bernstein dropped their second big Watergate story in the Post . They had been following the money! A check from the Committee for the Reelection of the President had been found in the bank account of one of the men who was arrested at the Watergate.
Henrietta was triumphant! Hadn’t she told us this whole thing was rotten? We thought, “Yeah, but you always say that.”
Life Other Than Politics
OK, I talked about work and politics. You might well think that’s all there is to life in D.C., but occasionally there were other things.
I’d never been around that many East Coast people before. At the University of Illinois there were people from everywhere, of course, but the Midwestern-ness of it homogenized them all. Here in D.C., they were in their element. It seemed like all of them went to a private liberal arts college on the East Coast; sometimes an elite one you’d heard of, but often one you’d never heard of.
I had a few friends among the interns, and there are two memories that stick with me. The first was a party at someone’s house, and a small group had just gone upstairs for some reason. They came back down and a woman said “You went upstairs without me? I’m ready for a little two-on-one action!”
I was shocked. I guess I’d lived a sheltered life.
The other instance was when a friend and I were in someone’s backyard around mid-day, and they made a gin-and-tonic for each of us. One of them was talking about going to the actual L.L. Bean store in Maine and how sublime it was. He said, “You know, some things are just socko, like pot and fornicating. But this, this was more subtle.”
Towards the end, I was concluding, without being conscious of it yet, that I’m a Midwestern boy and I hated these people.
Wes, my boss’ boss, tried one last time to get me to stay at H.E.W. He asked what my career goal was. I had to make one up, since “getting rich from a startup” wasn’t a realistic goal then. There were no startups, except for maybe the minicomputer companies, so I said “To have my own shop” (meaning, the computer department of a major company). Nowadays that’s a reasonable definition of Hell for me, but what did I know then?
He said, “Well, isn’t this the best place for that?” I don’t remember what I said, but I hope it was polite. I didn’t dislike Wes. I told my Dad what Wes had said, and he thought it was actually a good job and I should take it! The Civil Service was a great secure gig, to him. But no, I was going to grad school, and that was that.
Nixon went on to crush McGovern in a 49 state landslide. All my friends back at school voted for McGovern, of course. We lived in a bubble. There’s a famous mis-quote by Pauline Kael, the movie critic, “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” The actual quote was researched by John Podhoretz, and it was longer and even more provincial, and resembles what people say about Trump voters now:
I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.'
The story of Watergate is well known and I won’t recount it here. Almost as soon as the reelection, the scandal exploded and eventually caused Nixon’s resignation. He boarded a helicopter
and flew to San Clemente, the “Western White House.” He is still the only President ever to resign.
40 Years Later
I’d never lived on the East Coast before 1972. There were some attitudes and behaviors which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I went back to visit in 2012. On Connecticut Avenue near Chevy Chase, I took a photo of five ultra-luxury stores right next door to each other: Bulgari, Cartier, Tiffany, etc.
So ask yourself: who are these people who have so much money, and why do they have it? Are they lobbyists? Lawyers? Public relations “experts”? Government contractors? They’ve mostly never done anything worthwhile. The modern term of derision for them is “the Swamp” and I think it’s justified.
Back then I didn’t have as good a grasp on my feelings. There are some experiences that you should only have when you’re young, like being in the military, having a bad marriage, joining a commune, or in my case, living in The Swamp. I only did the last of those.