It was the summer of 1973, and I remember going to some theater event with all of the teens from my camp. The only part of the outing that I distinctly recall is that some of the older guys – my brother’s age so I didn’t know them too well – carried transistor radios to the performance, where they stealthily listened to the Watergate hearings. (Their interest in politics and public service stayed intact: many years later one of those boys was a New York City Councilmember; another founded Freedom to Marry, which led to the Supreme Court decision recognizing same sex marriage.)
Yes, Watergate was a big f-g deal, something everyone seemed to be following, whether they were interested in politics or not. And the facts bear out my memories: at one point or another, 4 out of 5 households watched part of the hearings! I remember that it seemed unheard of to have a President who was so deceitful. I remember learning the names of those around him: Haldeman and Erlichman, which sounded like a Jewish law firm, there was G. Gordon Liddy, who would never be part of that firm, there was John Mitchell, among others. Their roles and titles have blurred over the years but those names are seared in my memory just as were a bunch of teenage guys hovering over radios listening breathlessly as the national drama unfolded.
Watching the Jan 6 hearings life is so different. Instead of radios we all have phones that we can check for the latest news. We all have endless updates on whatever devices we use. There are a million more options and distractions for those who want to ignore the whole terrible thing. That great saying attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” is a joke now, as people clearly do have different facts they cling to. Among Republicans in a recent poll, 25 percent said Trump bears “not much” responsibility for the events of January 6th and 44 percent said he bears none at all. We’re so much more divisive. And while activism is alive and well, there are so many who have just completely checked out, in disgust or boredom or just being too overwhelmed with life to tune in to such a travesty and tragedy.
But I am my mother’s daughter so while I’m repulsed by much of what I hear and see, I stay riveted. I listened in horror as an election worker named Shaye Moss talked about how she and her mother, called Lady Ruby by those who knew her, were targeted by Trump and Guliani for rigging the vote. Two public servants who were threatened and harassed until they were virtual prisoners in their homes. In fact the FBI warned Lady Ruby to leave her home for two months around the time of January 6th because agents worried for her safety. Shaye’s grandmother called her in terror that a mob was at her door screaming that they were going to make a citizens arrest! Shaye left the job she loved, where as a Black woman, she reverently helped older Black voters who held especially dear the right to vote, as people who had been denied that right for so long. But she had to leave the work that had meaning to her, because of threats on her life. An honest and innocent person, her life has been destroyed by lies.
My mother worked at the polls every election, like these women. She worked in our town which was overwhelmingly Republican even through she was a committed Democrat. It didn’t matter; she was doing a job she felt was important and meaningful. Like these women she was as honest as they come, kind and helpful to those who came to exercise their right to vote.
My mother raised us to be engaged caring citizens, something I’ve always taken to heart. It isn’t an easy task, and yet it is never more important than now when we have so many options for not being engaged. And yet I understand that need to disengage at times: I rely on TV as much to inform me about current events as to take me as far as I can get from reality.
Because it’s hard not to feel disheartened by everything from ceaseless stories of gun violence to the videos of people storming the capital, to say enough already, just give me some old Seinfeld episodes and let me laugh in peace. Which is what I did after watching news analysis of the day’s hearings. I sat and watched a familiar sitcom and laughed, and then I felt able to go to sleep without knots in my stomach.
I’ll continue to watch the hearings or recaps and then take breaks for my mental health. Watergate seems so mild in comparison. No one was killed or committed suicide, innocent people’s lives weren’t destroyed. It was a botched burglary of the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex and the guilty were brought to justice, including the resignation of Nixon. I don’t expect such a satisfying ending this time, but I’ll be watching till the finish.