Richard Nixon's presidency matches up with my high school years and into the first half of college. My eyes were seeing politics full-view for the first time even though I grew up in a household where current events had always been on the menu at suppertime and the Vietnam War was on television news programs every evening. I detested Nixon for his corrupt White House. By 1968, I hated the war. But I caught a huge break when Nixon suspended the military draft just as I turned 18 in 1972. In those days we had a draft lottery, and my birthday had been the 62nd date pulled from a glass bowl or whatever it was the previous summer. The conventional wisdom had it that any person with a number below 100 was battlefield bound. We didn't know at the time, but the U.S. would keep fighting in Vietnam into 1975. Political commentators speculated that the draft was halted to drain steam from the antiwar movement ahead of the fall election for president. Whatever the motivation, I was a beneficiary.
Skip forward to 1983 when I was going to graduate school and based in Dana Point, Calif., just north of San Clemente where Nixon lived in retirement. More than once I sat on Capistrano Beach and looked down the Pacific coast, picturing Nixon at his compound. In his song "Hurricane," Bob Dylan has these lines: "Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties/Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise." With his pardon from President Ford in his pocket, Nixon scanned the beach, wrote books, and, momentously, answered questions from David Frost for a TV broadcast. At the end of the "national nightmare" in Ford's words, in 1975 I wrote the following poem to put a shape on the long wild episode for myself, to make a record in this form of what happened. I was 21 years old. The title is updated from the original.
This poem is included in my book Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017), which is available for purchase online or at the national park visitor center in Lowell, Mass.
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.