My mother was glued to the television every minute of the Watergate hearings when PBS began broadcasting them on May 17, 1973. I was a senior in high school then, and although I’m sure I must have left the house from time to time that summer before college, I was often alongside her, riveted. My mother had spent a lot of the preceding years chain-smoking and cursing every time Richard Nixon showed up on TV, and I lived with equal parts admiration and fear that one day her turquoise glass ashtray full of butts would go hurtling across the living room and shatter the screen.
The testimony itself proved shattering enough: John Dean’s complicity turned into conscience; Alexander Butterfield inadvertently revealing the White House taping system that eventually led to the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon’s direct involvement in the cover-up and obstructing justice. I don’t remember at what point we put a bottle of champagne in the fridge in anticipation of celebrating the president’s demise after invincibility slowly turned to inevitability. But I remember popping it the night of August 8, 1974, when Nixon announced his resignation, effective at noon the next day.
Those times seem long ago and in a galaxy far, far away. They’ve been beautifully captured by James Poniewozik, chief television critic for the New York Times. I’ve been aching for my mother all day long, and his account makes me ache even more for a time in which accountability and truth mattered.
My mother would have turned 96 just last month, but she’s been dead since 1995. I often look up into the stars at night and think, “Thank God you’ve missed this, it would kill you.” I was grateful that my mother died with her adoration of Bill Clinton intact, unsullied by his impeachment scandal. I could imagine ashtrays hurtling once again through the air when the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner in 2000. Although I’m sorry she missed the Obama years (she would have been equally thrilled by Hillary), I was thankful she missed 9/11, Iraq, endless wars. Trump’s election would surely have finished her off. (I feel that way myself much of the time, and do not have my mother’s habit of smoking to relieve the anxiety.)
But I do wish I could have her on the couch right now, riveted, alive with fury. I love to imagine her devouring then adding to her shelves all the books about Trump (and his fall) to her extensive Watergate library.
Right now, the prospect of popping champagne seems dim. But if and when it comes, I’ll raise a glass to you, Mom.