In the summer of 1973 I was living in Palo Alto, near the Stanford campus, and working farther north on the Peninsula. It was a place-holding kind of job, clerical, a way to pay the rent and finance my tennis habit, something to do after returning from a lengthy stay in Europe. I had a fairly new RCA color television, the first I'd ever owned, probably 17" on the diagonal, but the size hardly mattered, since it sat on a coffee table a few feet in front of the sofa, and during the summer I only used one channel. There weren't many channels to choose from anyway, in those days, but I only needed Channel 9, public broadcasting's local outlet, because they were providing, in those days before C-SPAN, wall-to-wall (or gavel-to-gavel) coverage of the Watergate hearings.
To say I was engrossed in those hearings would greatly understate matters. Obsessed would be more like it. I couldn't imagine greater drama, to watch as the mighty forces of constitutional democracy clashed and struggled. At issue, I came to realize, was the attempt of one individual and his henchmen in the Oval Office to knock out of kilter the delicate, ingenious, unique balance of powers devised two centuries before by some of the Enlightenment's greatest political thinkers. And Americans all. I listened to the live feed on the radio on the way to work, sitting in the car as I wolfed down a sandwich, then hurried home through the coastal mountains of the western Peninsula to see the taped version of John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichmann, the spooks, the rats, the true-believers play out on that small color screen. Every night I drank a couple of beers and ate a TV dinner, all through June and July, resenting the weekend recesses, thrilling at the occasional bombshell breaktrhroughs (all the Oval Office conversations were on tape!). On the concrete balcony outside the sliding glass door, a couple of lovestruck pigeons started a family in the unused hibachi, covering the floor with droppings, until the chicks hatched. I watched their clumsy progress out of the corner of one eye as Sam Dash drilled away at Erlichmann's obfuscations and contemptuous scorn for the truth, as Senator Sam, his volcanic wrath and self-righteousness swelling magnificently up within him, told the weaselly cabal just what he thought about "inoperative truths" and "modified limited hang-outs."
The Senate Select Committee, functioning on a fully bipartisan basis (Ervin, Howard Baker, Lowell Weiker), worked their way through to a just result. In truth, I had little doubt the right thing would happen. The Supreme Court, on an 8-0 vote, had squashed Nixon's last hope of escaping the noose. The Senators bore in relentlessly, uncovering layer upon layer of corruption and misprision, and all of them, Republicans and Democrats alike, put partisan politics to one side, judged harshly Tricky Dick's efforts to subvert the Constitutional processes, to play off the CIA against the FBI, to lie, to bribe, to cheat, to break the law. And when the hearings were just about over, the pigeon chicks were nudged off the high balcony and flew away to their own independent freedom.
I think I decided to become a lawyer after watching the Watergate hearings. It seemed like a magnificent calling, to be an officer of the court, to be one of those guardians of due process and a fair trial, to assure a level playing field for litigants, to learn all those complicated rules of evidence, to expose the cheats and frauds, to make sure the system worked.
What I didn't realize at the time, perhaps, was how much those lofty ideals depended on a particular mindset, on an inculcated sense of morality, on what you might call the Internalized Democracy. The tools of democracy, the Constitution, the three branches of government, the electorate, the free press -- all those still exist 33 years later. But the people who gave those things a living, breathing spirit are gone. Now the Senate and House, and of course the White House, and increasingly the Supreme Court, are infested with power-mongering careerists who simply do not care about the ideals the Senate Select Committee fought for. They care only about their petty, lifetime sinecures, with its chance to sell the influence of their office to lobbyists, and have become experts primarily at the manipulation of public opinion in the most cynical, venal and ultimately destructive ways imaginable. The Republicans refuse to rein in President Bush, despite the clear, illegal and corrupt practices of his Administration, because maintaining the power of their party is more important to them than the viability of the American democracy. The Democrats triangulate and focus-group their way to positions they think will sell, so that they can once again enjoy that majority status which is worth so much on the open market.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar,
said T.S. Eliot, speaking of another morally depleted time. So we've come full circle.
I don't know what became of that television. It was actually made in America, by the way. I guess it went the way of my tennis game. And the American Democracy. The Senate now works with the President to hide facts from the American public. They have become co-conspirators with a cabal Senator Sam would have called "a bunch o' burglars." Do not think, for a moment, that the Internalized Democracy, once lost, once squandered, is easily reinstated. Those brave souls who preserved the Union 33 years ago were the products of another moral era, one which has sunk beneath deep sedimentary layers of dishonesty and ethical rot.