Storytelling: Nixon’s resignation felt like a little piece of everyone’s history

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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 la­dy­je­an­de­

The PG Port­fo­lio wel­comes “Sto­ry­tell­ing” sub­mis­sions and other reader es­says. Send your writ­ing to page2@post-ga­; or by mail to Port­fo­lio, Post-Ga­zette, 34 Blvd. of the Al­lies, Pitts­burgh, PA 15222. Port­fo­lio ed­i­tor Gary Rot­stein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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