This is an excerpt from the new e-book Smoking Gun: The Nation on Watergate, a unique real-time history of the rise and fall of Richard Nixon and the consequences for American democracy. The book is now available in paperback as well as on tablets, smartphones and computers—download yours today.
In a 2013 television special, Louis C.K. drew a line between those Americans who had lived through Watergate and those who had not:
We saw the President of America cry and then quit being the President! That shit was crazy! ’Cause none of us knew what would happen next! Today people are like, “The President’s kinda disappointing.” Really? Our President wept—like an insane person—and then got in a helicopter [L.C.K. flashes the Nixon V-sign] and flew away! And the whole nation just watched him go.
At first glance, Watergate seems like one of those rare episodes in American history secure from the predatory embrace of nostalgia. Who longs for a time when an assortment of former CIA officials and anti-Castro Cubans working for the American President’s re-election engaged in a massive criminal effort to defame, discredit and destroy his political opponents? When the sworn executor of American laws believed they were inapplicable to his own actions? When people seriously debated whether the United States was at risk of a fascist takeover? Even Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, called it a “long national nightmare,” mere weeks before pardoning its villain and thus becoming one himself. Why wish a return?
“’Cause none of us knew what would happen next.”
“History,” Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The same was true of the American public in the early 1970s, and the Nation articles reprinted in Smoking Gun are the record of that effort. In forty-one editorials, investigations and articles ranging over nearly sixty years, the collection aims to provide a uniquely grounded but reflective account of this pivotal moment in the American story—a moment which, to adapt the old song, we’ve forgotten to remember to forget.
Smoking Gun: The Nation on Watergate
to read it instantly on your tablet, eReader, smartphone or computer.
Smoking Gun is divided into six parts. “The Prelude” begins with a review of Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech during the 1952 campaign: lying, obfuscation, cheap appeal to patriotic emotion—it was right there from the beginning. The Nation headlined its editorial response, “A Handbook for Demagogues.” A 1959 essay by the late presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns wonders whether Nixon was immoral or merely amoral; a 1965 architecture review of the Watergate complex questions its backers’ claim that they had produced a new “power center of the Western world.”