My wife Rosemary and I have been watching the History Channel’s three-night presentation of a new film about the political scandal Watergate, which is disturbingly relevant because of the current chaos in Washington, D.C. The documentary or docudrama approach provides a cool, fact-based account of the sprawling corruption that brought down the administration of President Richard M. Nixon. The Commander-in-Chief and “all the President’s men,” to borrow a book title from the time, had subverted the nation’s electoral process, abused executive power, broken laws and obstructed justice, and waged political war on Nixon’s enemies, as he called them. He resigned in August 1974 after a long battle with a special prosecutor and Congressional investigators. Vice President Gerald R. Ford stepped up to the presidency and soon pardoned Nixon, saying that it was time for the “long national nightmare” to end. The next year, I read a news story about Ford being honored as “Minute Man of the Year” by a national association of Army Reserve officers. That was the catalyst in this case. The news article also gave me the original title.
Trying to sum up the Watergate affair for myself and put a frame on the wild series of events, I wrote the following poem. Because the story is so complex, I used an irregular sonnet form to contain the information. I’ve composed more often in open than closed forms, so this piece is an exception from my early writing days. There are many inside references such as Nixon’s middle name, Milhous, but I felt that the details were crucial to evoking the history unfolding in real time. Eighty million people watched John Dean testify on TV before U.S. Senators, according to media reports. The poem was not published until 2017, when I included it in my book Union River. The poem fit in a sequence of poems set in California. The book’s Americana theme also provided a rationale for finally putting it out there. I changed the title to “San Clemente” because I lived north of Nixon’s California coastal home for a time in the 1980s. He was living there, where he had retreated and tried to rehabilitate his reputation after quitting the White House. Sometimes I pictured him walking the beach in his coat and tie,“free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise,” in the words of Bob Dylan.
My relationship to Nixon, if I can call it that, is complicated because I benefited from Nixon’s decision to suspend the military draft just as I turned 18 in 1972. I had a low number in the Selective Service lottery, 62, and would have been ordered to report for a physical exam and then combat duty because I was healthy. The same month, the voting age was lowered to 18 years old by federal law. I consider myself fortunate in this regard.
We asked if the system had worked when it was through.
The drumming of Post reporters in ‘72
Had White House bag-men scrambling in the stew.
Instead of counting dead Viet Cong, they dreamt payoff sagas,
Talking “stonewall” and “tossing out the big enchilada.”
Credible Dean blew a factual whistle for Sam Ervin.
Milhous squirmed, but knew Spiro had slipped the pen.
The Saturday Night Massacre of Cox drew mail by tons.
Oval Office lawyers and priests trotted out candid lines.
Dick TV’d his edited transcripts, said he wasn’t lying.
But Judge Sirica persisted, the full Supreme
Court said, “Give,” and Rodino, red-eared from screen-
Ing tapes, found the high crime. Impeachment’s Goliath Sword
Sent Nixon scuttering west in a dethroned whirlybird.