Friday, May 23, 2008

Reality Check in the Nixon Era

For a while I had an intriguing friend in Bennington, a classic love-hate relationship that went on for several years. At times he seemed pretentious and egotistical. But he was also wildly free. In the early 1960s he’d emerged as an artist, then briefly run a company in the area. During that period, he purchased a huge house, installed an organ, held off-the-hook parties, cultivated flowers in a formal garden, and created a seductive environment that could fulfill the fantasies of hundreds of people at a time.

While working for The Banner, I’d written a profile of the artist as a retired revolutionary, “relieved to get out of the spotlight” yet eager to see what was next. Two years later, he got tired of waiting. His idea was to bring together the emerging alternative culture of southwestern Vermont by opening a nightspot behind his downtown boutique. He set about creating a unique cultural space, a warm candle-lit club decorated with Indian draperies and offering entertainment that ranged from live music, light shows, and dance nights to a film series on the theme of “the unknown.”

It was intense and engaging, but not very lucrative or destined to last. He gradually drifted into a fantasy world, a state of intermittent delusion that made him difficult to reach. And even if he hadn’t flown off to “the fourth world” of his imagination for a while, my pockets were empty after several months spent writing, helping with the project, and “looking within.” I needed a real job. Fortunately, a Department of Labor contractor was hiring. In March I became a “manpower” employment counselor, assigned to build a local office and help high school dropouts find work.

Daily contact with poor families, social workers, and local businesses quickly re-anchored me in “normal” life. I’d meet with the teens, helping them to talk through problems and plans. It was disheartening to see how little freedom they thought they had, and how restricted were their hopes. The girls, some already mothers at 16, mainly wanted to be secretaries. Most of the boys imagined becoming mechanics. I learned to empathize, to sense how they felt, and sometimes help.

The new challenge spurred my own recovery. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted in the long run, but at least I felt alive and relatively stable again. Things were looking up. I had income and prospects for the future. What’s next? I wondered. Buying a house? Exactly. A local real estate agent had the perfect place, a cute two-story near Bennington College. It had three rooms upstairs perfect for rental, and a back shed we transformed into a sauna.

Two friends took the in-law apartment, a handyman/draft evader living underground and his craftswoman partner. Good times rolled, full of spontaneous happenings, lazy sauna evenings, psychedelic weekends, and much deep talk. Sitting around the dinner table, debating politics and winter weather and the craziness of the outside world, it felt as if we were creating our own community.

In that larger world, trying to help some of its victims, I showed talent for counseling and developing a base. The work and training contractor provided more money to add an adult program. The task was the same – help the unemployed get jobs and education. By the fall, when I’d built up the project enough to deserve an expanded office, The Banner ran an article.

The following spring I ran for the local school board and set up a youth center connected with my job. Both projects hit roadblocks, however. The school board, which had to accept a grant I’d obtained to create a vocational training center, wanted the money but didn’t want me. I was becoming a liability to my own organization. Running for office against a conservative mom and a popular local pharmacist named Oakley Frost also turned out to be a mistake. When Election Day rolled around I was beaten badly.

At the time, mid-1972, it looked on the surface like Richard Nixon was riding high – an historic visit to China, an Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union, an end to the Vietnam War on the horizon, and then a landslide victory that fall over George McGovern in the presidential election. But appearances were deceiving. Despite manipulating public perceptions for decades, electability wasn’t enough. He was about to be exposed.

In June 1972, operatives working for the Committee to Re-elect the President were caught during a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. Within hours one of the “masterminds,” G. Gordon Liddy, attempted to shred all related documents. Two days later, Nixon’s press secretary called it a “third rate burglary.” But the damage was done, and two years later Nixon resigned in disgrace.

According to Douglas Hallett, a White House staff assistant to Charles Colson, the Watergate scandal “was an almost organic outgrowth of a White House peopled by competitive political animals who were rewarded in direct proportion to their expressions of fear, suspicion and paranoia."

Hallett worked closely with Colson, who said once that he would "walk over my grandmother" to assure Richard Nixon a second term as President. Hallett felt that Colson, a dirty tricks expert, "was a man without ethical compass; there was an absence of fixed direction and conviction. He was proud of having worked his way up from practically nothing, and regarded himself as the living embodiment of the American Dream."

Hallett’s portrait of Nixon was even more chilling: "Awkward remarks popped up constantly like his 'This is a great day for France' comment at President Pompidou's funeral or his 'Do you like your job?' question to a policeman who had suffered an accident during one of Nixon's Florida campaign tours and was awaiting an ambulance.

“Once, a woodcarver was ushered into the Oval Office to present the President with a chair he had fashioned from a single piece of wood. When Nixon sat down in the chair, according to one of those present, it collapsed into pieces. Picking himself off the floor, the President asked, as if nothing had happened, 'Well, how do you go about doing this kind of work?' Most memorable of all, at least for me, was shaking hands with Nixon. Each time I did, I had the eerie, even frightening feeling that nobody was there; face-to-face, hands clasped, yet no feeling, no feeling at all."

Staffed by ethically-challenged administrators, and led by a President who appeared drained of real emotion, the administration found coercive methods – a drive for negative power – the “rational” solution in a pervasive atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Nixon had been more than willing to make any sacrifices necessary to win the highest office in the land. In many ways he was a model of the “rational manager.” Dedicated to the practical, to the need for discipline and sacrifice, constantly monitoring and evaluating his own actions, and obsessed with his image, he was an “electronic messiah” who exploited mass media in a search for "greatness," his euphemism for ever-escalating production and continued dissemination of the American Dream.

Nixon made frequent use of slogans – the silent majority, peace with honor – and key words. Three concepts were linked: greatness, sacrifice, and responsibility. During the Nixon era, mass consciousness was saturated with this formula for "the good life." A "good" citizenry begins by shouldering responsibility, welcoming – even thriving upon – its sacrifices, and finally, through this effort and pain, attains greatness. Even after his "assassination,” those steps remained American facts of life, the “way” of the electronic messiah.

Part six of Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir

Next: Lessons of an Electronic Messiah

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