Summer classes during college 40 years ago were my parents’ idea, another attempt to protect me from the wicked world, I think.
So every morning I took the bus into Oakland, to be on time for Psychology 101 at Pitt. Every afternoon, after my women’s history course was done I walked home to Squirrel Hill, to save myself 50 cents.
It was the second summer of the televised drama surrounding President Richard Nixon’s downfall since the Watergate break-in stories began hitting the news in 1972.
The summer of 1973, when I had a job baby-sitting three small holy terrors, I’d watched the Senate Watergate hearings on television in my rare free moments. That fall, as I was rehearsing with the college choir, somebody came in to announce that Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned.
In January of 1974, somebody hung a banner outside a campus building that read, “IMPEACH NIXON.” Mr. Davis, teaching History 101, rocked back on his heels and smiled. “I didn’t do it,” he told us.
Two years before, Nixon had glided into his second term. All the candidates who might have posed a challenge slipped away by the time the convention came. George McGovern, who was too far left even for most Democrats, ran against him. Nixon carried 49 states. Voter turnout was low, but I don’t think he noticed that. Nixon was the president who opened relations with China. He’d made his place in history.
Then we learned what he’d done to get himself re-elected. Now the president was falling like a hero in a Greek tragedy.
Every morning on the bus, people asked, “Is he guilty?” … “Will he be impeached?” … “Will he have to leave office?”
It occasionally took my mind off the rigors of passing Psych 101. I didn’t do well in survey courses, which meant spending a lot of time in the big hall in the Cathedral of Learning going over my psych text preparing for finals as summer wound down. I followed the impeachment stories in the papers and on the evening news, but I was more interested in my classwork.
Nonetheless, Nixon remained the hot topic on the bus, in the hall outside of class and in the little Oakland restaurants where I would eat a solitary lunch.
By Aug. 8, I had one final left, for women’s history. It wasn’t a survey course, and the only thing the final would decide for me was whether I’d get an A or a B. Of course I wanted the A, so I was hitting the books the night before.
Dad had the TV on. I heard Nixon’s voice and didn’t think anything of it. He had always loved to commandeer the airwaves. One minute you were watching “Mannix,” the next Nixon was there at his desk with another announcement.
I don’t know why I went to check it out this time. I suppose I needed a break. But that was when I saw the president of the United States tell the world he was resigning. Nixon was stepping down the next day to let Gerald Ford, the vice president we didn’t elect, become the leader of the free world.
I almost missed it all for the sake of a final exam — which, by the way, I aced.
Celebrating my success the next day with a hot fudge sundae, I saw a young man wearing a Nixon mask while panhandling with a tin cup outside the ice cream store. I thought it was in poor taste.
That morning I had heard Nixon’s last speech. It was, possibly, his finest. He spoke with honesty and humility, qualities that could have kept him in office for a full eight years.
Instead, I had seen a president fall. I was not yet 20. I had almost missed it all, missed history, for the sake of a history exam.
That is what is called irony.
Jean Martin of Swissvale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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