16 June 2022

Amtrak to Washington, DC: October 1973

Rideau Canal, Ottawa (with Dunton Tower, where I 
studied Russian, in background).
Carleton University's Loeb Building, where my political
science classes were held.
A sampling of the stamps in my 1973 diary.

"Would you believe I am on a train to Washington?" That's how I began my diary entry on Monday, October 22, 1973.

Two days earlier, October 20, the diary entry that I wrote in my dorm room at Carleton University, Ottawa, had gone on at length about the "Saturday Night Massacre," when U.S. president Richard Nixon forced the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, hired by the Department of Justice to investigate the Watergate scandal.

The next day, Sunday, I made the impulsive decision to take the Montreal-D.C. train down to Washington, to (as my diary says) "see for myself what is going on there."

(Tuesday, October 23.) "I arrived in Washington shortly before 2 p.m.... I went to the Capitol and walked into the Rotunda. At the Capitol I heard, from a group of people clustered around a television reporter, that Nixon had agreed today to give up the tapes. I'm sitting now in front of the White House. Horns beep as cars driving along Pennsylvania Avenue pass the pickets at the curb. At the corner is a booth selling 'Impeach Nixon' stickers & where you can sign a petition to Congress. The weather is beautiful."

I spent the night at a friend's residence at the University of Maryland. The last line in Tuesday's entry, squeezed in with tiny letters, reminds me that the Watergate drama was far from the only thing on the world's minds: "New Israel-Egypt cease-fire."

Before I boarded Amtrak's Montrealer the very next day, my friend and I toured the Supreme Court, which played such a crucial role in the Watergate epic, and were able to visit the storied courtroom itself. But the most haunting experience of those brief hours in Washington was that first visit to the White House fence. There I found an amazing assortment of people from all over the country who had been drawn to that exact spot, as I had, by a compulsion that none of us could put exact words to. We felt that the fate of the Republic was at stake, and we simply could not stay away.

Does it make sense to draw comparisons between public reactions to the Watergate story and to today's January 6 hearings? Politically speaking, our Republic now finds itself in even more danger than in the Nixon era, facing a messy tangle of authoritarianism, false populism, and christian nationalism, all made more dangerous by a cynical passivity that too often says (in the words of a relative of mine) "What's the use? You can't believe anybody" (except, of course, Trump). Even so, millions of people seem to be paying close attention to the January 6 hearings, just as we waited five decades ago for each new Watergate development.

Where is today's equivalent of the White House fence? What will draw us there?

I appreciated today's thoughtful report in the Washington Post about people's reactions to the January 6 hearings. One particular story jumped out at me: (link in original article)

Even if the hearings do change some Trump voters' minds, they cannot save the country from a treacherous, even violent, reckoning, said Kathleen Betsko Yale, a retired actress and playwright in Buffalo.

Yale has been glued to the hearings. As an immigrant who grew up in Coventry, England, during World War II, she finds too many echoes of the rise of authoritarianism in Europe.

I try to be hopeful," she said, "but I think we've reached a tipping point and we're going to have to go through some dark times before we come to our senses. Fascism is always about turning people against each other, and that’s what we see in the hearings."

Yale expects that her great-grandchildren will emerge from a time of American darkness, "but at 83, I doubt I will see that. What we need is reconciliation, but I have people in my own family who are on the other side and we can't talk about it. We try to get along without going there."

To be honest, back in 1972, there were practically no mentions of Watergate in my diary. The very first note was extremely oblique: I mentioned calling a high school friend in Evanston on June 29; we talked about Martha Mitchell, but I didn't note any details. This was a week after her famous phone call to Helen Thomas.

That fall I left the USA for university in Canada, and much of my diary covers these changes in my own life. However, shortly after arriving in Ottawa, I began subscribing to the Christian Science Monitor (imagine, a daily newspaper by postal mail, which arrived reliably in one day). Most of my early 1973 diary entries were about Viet Nam (I got my conscientious objector notification on January 15, noted with two exclamation marks!!), but as the year wore on, Watergate got more and more of my attention.

David Brooks on the future of the American right. The article is a few months old but hasn't gone stale, especially in view of what Kathleen Yale said in the Washington Post interview above.

Pope Francis on Ukraine: nonviolence, not surrender.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill apparently demotes Metropolitan Hilarion (but nobody is explaining exactly why).

On Russia's projected recession (interesting reading in view of the USA's own situation these days).

Pacific Northwest Quaker Women reconnect with each other for the common good, July 29-30 on Zoom.

When Nancy Thomas gets mad, it's not pretty. (PS: I would get mad, too!)

"Becoming the Quakers the World Needs."

Junior Wells and Buddy Guy in Switzerland, 1974.

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