I have a horrible memory. My wife and kids talk about stuff we’ve done that doesn’t sound remotely familiar to be. But I can tell you with certainty that on this night 40 years ago I was sitting at the bar at Club 20, a low-point beer establishment on Lake Kampeska. I have that certainty because, with a tap beer in front of me, I was watching and reveling in Tricky Dick Nixon resigning from the presidency. It was, for me, a joyous moment.
Nixon wouldn’t officially leave office until the next morning but I had no doubt this was an event that deserved celebrating. I wasn’t prescient or any more insightful than the next guy. Hell, I wasn’t even old enough to vote (or drink for that matter, but that’s another story). Ever ever since he ran in 1968, to me he epitomized everything that was wrong with America. In fact, I would find no other politician so utterly despicable until Dubya was elected 26 years later.
In retrospect, Nixon’s presidency had a rather significant impact on my life. I was leaving for my first year of college later that month. Rather than being a sports editor somewhere, the last year of Nixon’s presidency pushed me toward being a political reporter. The seed of studying political science as well as journalism had been planted. All this led me to public affairs reporting, including covering the Legislature, Bill Janklow and Congressional races, and, ultimately, to law school.
Still, my core feelings about Nixon were reflected in this scene from Bill Murray’s portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in the otherwise forgettable Where the Buffalo Roam:
Thompson’s inimitable style and approach in his Rolling Stone obituary of Nixonpiece is an excellent summary of the Nixon I perceived:
He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.
Back in the mid-70s, though, I still believed the American Dream and political system had a chance. After all, didn’t Watergate show the system worked? Maybe we could turn things around. So, there is a part of me that looks back on that night 40 years ago somewhat fondly. Of course, that delusion didn’t last forever. My gradual transition from optimism tinged with a heavy dose of skepticism to utter and complete cynicism and disgust became final while Dubya was president. Perhaps just shows how naive we can be when we’re young.
Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.
Hunter S. Thompson, “He Was a Crook, “June 16, 1994